Friday, December 12, 2008

Breathless: A review of Le Deuxieme Souffle

"Silence pervades most of the action in Le Deuxième souffle, a French gangster film where music is used sparingly and characters are reticent (it takes seven minutes for us to receive the first line of dialogue). Director Jean-Pierre Melville aspires to create organic suspense sequences where character movement is precious and the camera is respectfully observational – and boy, does it work. The film contains a much revered heist sequence where the anticipation plays out with realistic and unbearable intensity."

Click here to read my DVD review at PopMatters

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Chump Charity: A Review of Where God Left His Shoes

"Unless you stay to the very end of the credits — in which it states that a portion of the film’s proceeds are being donated to homeless shelters and urges viewers to contribute further — the film feels like a message movie without the message."

Click here to read my review in The L Magazine

Monday, November 24, 2008

Entourage S.5 E.12 - "Return to Queens Blvd"

The boys were back in town again and after some requisite all-night partying and talks with Mom, they get back down to business. Vince and E squabbled over how to get Gus Van Sant to let Vince audition for his new movie while Turtle tried to keep his relationship with Jamie Lynn Sigler secret and Drama invested his money into a hometown bar. The episode returned to the original formula of preserving Ari for short but sweet appearances to dole out a few funny lines and further the plot rather than devoting whole sub-plots around him. As such, the episode divided the screen time pretty evenly amongst the boys.

The episode saw Vince at his most unsteady and insecure despite finding comfort in an ex-girlfriend – the episode’s only superfluous element, largely due to the terrible performance by the actress. On the other hand, Adrian Grenier displayed some of his best acting to date when cool-as-a-cucumber Vince finally let down his façade in an explosive, expletive-fueled cell phone hurl. The subsequent mash-up between Vince and E was painful and unflinching (although marred by a distracting 360 degree revolving camera) and their reconciliation at the show’s end was just as bromantic as we would hope it to be.

After a season of suffering through set-back after set-back, Entourage’s hedonistic fans finally received the release they needed as Vinnie got offered the lead role in the next Scorsese film, a reworking of The Great Gatsby. It seems to me that Vinnie would be much better suited to play Gatsby than Nick Carroway but never mind if this means we’ll get to see more Scorsese cameos! I suspect the movie’s production will occur off-screen this time but hopefully the grand master will still be popping up during post-production.

One of Entourage’s strongest qualities is its ability to anticipate showbiz trends and comment on material contemporaneous to its air date rather than its shoot date. Last night we saw it with all the Gus Van Sant talk and Drama’s throwaway reference to Milk and even in the line about Joaquin Phoenix bowing out of a film which almost aligns with his supposed retirement announcement. Further in that regard, the entirety of season five feels like a reflection of America’s economic downturn what with all the dialogue about it being a bad year and hitting a rough patch. The doom and gloom is more likely a by-product of this season being written on the heels of the writer’s guild strike but it still feels like a contribution to Entourage’s eerie powers of prognostication.

While I was becoming accustomed to the show’s new tone and approach, the last five minutes did feel like a welcome return. With its promised summer 2009 airing maybe a bit more fun and sun in season six will help after this long winter of discontent. Who knows? Maybe even the economy will be on the incline by then.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Rebecca: My Last Duchess

"Rebecca holds the unique distinction of being the only Alfred Hitchcock film to win a Best Picture Oscar (more to that, it’s one of only three of the director’s films even nominated for the award). In retrospect, it seems absurd to think that Hitchcock – the most famous director in film history – received such little award recognition. How could this universally adored filmmaker (Have you ever heard someone say “I don’t like Hitchcock films”?) have been passed over so routinely?"

Click here to read my DVD review of Rebecca at PopMatters

Monday, November 17, 2008

Entourage S.5 E.11 - "Play'n with Fire"

As the culmination of season five looms in the distance, Entourage delivers one of the season’s most exciting episodes, the first one this year that has had me itching to watch another episode right after its completion rather than complacently going to sleep. All season long there have been hints that the writers are angling to take the show in a new direction (Vince’s jeopardized career, Drama’s TV success, E’s new clients, Ari and the studio job) and judging by last night’s episode and next week’s preview, they might just be willing to follow through with their promise of really shaking things up.

After suffering through 30 ridiculous takes for Verner (and finally convincing me his performance in Smokejumpers wasn’t terrible), Vince and Verner had it out at each other in a frenzied shouting match that ended in Verner’s public firing of Vince. Ari jumps on a helicopter to Big Bear to pacify things but Verner’s temper grows stronger and by the end of the day they’ve scheduled a meeting with the studio to try and salvage the production. Vince is willing to make amends but Verner will hear nothing of it and storms off to see the studio chair John Ellis (Alan Dale). Verner’s psychopathic storming of the studio played out fairly over-the-top but the shots of Vince and E running after him in bewilderment keyed into one of the show’s strongest enjoyment factors – the sense of these outsiders engaging in some sort of Hollywood absurdity and not believing their eyes while being caught up in the whole madness themselves. In the end, Ellis shuts down production on the film completely (a fairly melodramatic plot development) and the boys board a plane back to Queens uttering Vinnie’s oft-quoted credo from the early seasons, “If it all falls apart then we’ll go back home”, albeit this time with considerably less spunk.

The episode’s other major development was the attention devoted to Turtle and the reveal of his background. The episode begins with Jamie-Lynn Sigler calling him up and reigniting their relationship. While their courtship doesn’t feel anywhere near as genuine as Turtle’s relationship with the car mechanic’s daughter in season 3, Jamie-Lynn is at least able to coax more information out of him (last time all we got was for Turtle to take off his hat). The self-exploration started when she pushed Turtle about his life aspirations and he squirms when he realizes he doesn’t really have any. Furthermore, we learn that Turtle fronted the money for their big move to LA through being a bookie (no wonder Vinnie is so loyal) and that his real name is Sal (a good choice on the writers’ part, not ridiculous by any means but you can also see why a guy like him would rather go by his reptilian moniker).

Next week promises more big changes with the gang heading back to New York and for the first time in the show’s history we’ll actually get to see them in their old neighborhood (last time they went back, to shoot Queens Boulevard, everything was kept off-screen during the in-between seasons ellipsis. There’s also the promise of a huge blow-out between Vince and E – yes, we’ve seen this before, but this one looks pretty serious. All in all, last night’s episode was a great set-up for what could be a series-defining season finale. The ball is in the writers’ court now. Will they conclude the series’ most conflict-filled season with a cliff-hanger ending or will things revert back to the good life?

Oh, and major credit goes to Kevin Dillon and the writers for allowing Drama to get the night’s funniest line despite his minimal screen time with his delightfully esoteric name dropping of Barbet Schroeder.

Friday, November 14, 2008

A High-Concept Disappointment?: Analyzing the Yes Man Trailer

Anyone else find that their television sets were inundated with TV spots for Jim Carrey’s new comedy, Yes Man, during the end of September and early October? It struck me as odd that they would start pushing the film so forcefully on television with the release date a solid two months away (the website says 12/19/08 but the ads vaguely state Christmas). The plot involves a callous jerk who rejects most ideas and people but one day changes his mind (or maybe gets hypnotized by Terrence Stamp?) and finds himself unable to respond to a question in anything other than the affirmative. The problem with marketing a high-concept formula like this is that the core humor of the film is contained in set pieces and easily extractable dialogue exchanges (e.g. Carrey receives an e-mail asking if he would like to increase the size of his penis and he answers aloud to his co-workers) that work just as well as stand-alone clips as they do in the context of the film. This means that the film itself can only be effective if the threads holding together the set pieces are strong enough to match the comedic high jinks already consumed for free in the advertising. You can’t sit through a 90-minute film exclusively made of Carrey responding yes to crazy/embarrassing questions (it’s hard enough stringing it out in a 2-minute trailer) so by fundamental nature of plot concerns, it needs to contain extra material to stretch out the conceit past sketch-length. But the problem is that the marketing sells it solely on the high-concept scenario and that’s what will compel people to head out to the multiplex. As the advertisements already offer a vast array of these scenarios, the film is setting itself up for failure, at least in terms of quality if not finance – it takes a lot for a Carrey comedy to gross under $100 million.

The most obvious comparisons to previous Jim Carrey vehicles are Liar Liar and Bruce Almighty. The Yes Man trailer seems very much in the same mold as Liar Liar. Yes Man is adapted from a 2006 memoir of the same name by British journalist Danny Wallace. According to Publishers Weekly Wallace was inspired to answer yes to everything by an encounter with a stranger on a bus. His decision to spend a year saying yes was self-governed. But the marketing for the film makes it look like Carrey’s decision is not entirely self-motivated as we see a clip of him getting hit on the head by a motivational speaker and blankly responding yes. The implication here is that his decision to say yes is against his will (i.e. “I CAAAAAN’T LIIIIIIIEEEEE”). Scrutiny of the subsequent dialogue in the trailer suggests that his character is merely influenced by the motivational speaker rather than possessed but still, the connection to the zany antics of Liar Liar is firmly established.

Based on the subsequent montage of Carrey flying a plane, riding a motorbike, playing DDR and talking down a suicide attempt, the film follows a fairly rote formula of nasty, up-tight guy reclaims life by opening himself to new experiences and discovering humanity. No wonder the marketing keeps pushing the word Christmas – when else to release such schmaltzy fare?
Liar Liar’s strength beyond the conceit of Carrey being unable to lie was that it was actually a fairly wholesome family film that not only tickled funny bones but warmed hearts with its story of a fractured family’s fairy tale reconciliation. Bruce Almighty on the other hand, in which Carrey is bestowed deity powers from God, turned fairly lame fairly quickly once the “I’ve Got the Power” montage was over and the syrupy goodwill-to-all themes took over. Too risqué for a family film but not riotous enough for the post-teenage crowd, Bruce Almighty flounders when it isn’t milking its conceit. Could Yes Man follow suit?

Well, Yes Man is co-written by Nicolas Stoller who directed the simultaneously raunchy and cuddly Forgetting Sarah Marshall and collaborated on the screenplay for another Carey vehicle, Fun with Dick and Jane, so perhaps there is some potential for Yes Man to sustain itself beyond its central shtick. Fun with Dick and Jane was based on an easily marketable ploy – suburban mom and dad turn to petty crime to pay the bills – but excelled by using its concise running time to efficiently comment on corporate greed and the state of the American economy (maybe it was released 3 years too early?) rather than loading up on easy set-pieces. True, the moment of Carrey accidentally sticking up a friend was in every commercial but there was a darker current to that scene in the actual film.

Fun with Dick and Jane is one of Carrey’s lesser remembered broad comedies, despite grossing $110 million in 2005, it’s faded from memory due to its less easily extractable comic scenarios and its mostly negative reviews. James Berardinelli at ReelViews criticized Carrey for being past his prime and for yearning to recapture the glory of his early comedies: “Carrey's antics give the appearance of someone out of practice trying too hard. They're more awkward than funny. His body's not as plastic at age 43 as it was at age 32.” I disagreed with him then but fear that it might be necessary to reposition his point toward the case of Yes Man. In the new film, Carrey’s pals seem to be played by Danny Masterson (That 70s Show) and Bradley Cooper (Wedding Crashers) and his romantic interest is Zooey Deschanel (Elf). Carrey (who turns 47 in Januarys) is almost 15 years older than all of them and their casting can’t help but underline the fact that Carrey has gotten too old for this kind of comedy. Aging down the female romantic interest is a sad but inevitable trend in Hollywood but even aging down the buddies? It’s possible the filmmakers will work this age discrepancy into the plot for some added poignancy but something tells me it’s more likely to go by untouched.

But I mean don’t get me wrong, it’s still a Jim Carrey movie so I’ll definitely see it when it opens. It’ll probably be lame but I can’t say no to the man who brought Ace Ventura into the world. My main gripe (for now) is with the advanced promotion and how it preordains the film as a letdown. Next time a TV spot appears during SNL or The Office I’ll just have to switch the channel in the hope of preserving any fresh yuletide yuks for my multiplex viewing.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The Class: Teach Like Your Hair is on Fire

"Those expecting the Palme d’Or to signify something visually or narratively revolutionary will be underwhelmed by The Class. Instead what the film does offer – and I think this is a remarkable achievement indeed – is the power to compel inward reflection and insight into the nature of being both a teacher and a student in the equivalent of a US middle school context; the most painful and least productive years of secondary education, if you ask me."

Click here to read my review at Not Coming to a Theater Near You

Monday, November 10, 2008

Entourage S.5 E.10 - "Seth Green Day"

After two episodes of playing the background, E was finally given a major plot again this week, a development that saw the return of his ex-girlfriend Sloan and the irrepressible Seth Green reprising his role as a brash, repulsive version of himself. After disappearing in the wake of their infamous battle of the entourages in season three, Seth Green resurfaces as a possible casting choice for Charlie’s sitcom. The development team implies that securing Seth for the pilot will guarantee production (I guess Vinnie’s offer to cameo in the episode “Redomption” is now considered worthless) so Seth makes E jump through a series of hoops in order to get him to commit, the extent of which culminate in E paying a visit to Sloan, the cause of E and Seth’s contention. Once again this season, Kevin Connelly makes the plot work thanks to his ability to exhibit E’s suppressed insecurities through eye-rolls and fleeting hang-dog expressions – his nervousness around Sloan is the episode’s highlight.

Ari’s plot began superbly with a breakfast scene between him and his children in which his daughter sagely advised Ari to curb his insults and antagonism toward his business partner and instead attempt a little bit of politeness if he wants her to agree to something. The scene demonstrated how much Entourage has matured over the seasons, such a suggestion would have never been fielded in the early years. However, the episode concluded with Ari using the same old offensive, asinine public ridicule to coax Babs into hiring Andrew Klein. How his behavior convinced her to capitulate rather than disenfranchise herself from the company is beyond me but at any rate, she’s agreed to let Andrew join the company, which I guess is a good thing? Is it just me or does Gary Cole’s performance seem like it’s geared more toward Mad Men than Entourage?

Much to my shock, we’re at the tenth episode of the season and Vinnie’s career is still floundering. Last night’s episode found Vinnie repeatedly butting heads with maverick director Werner, who continues to cut Vinnie’s lines and ignore his takes. I can’t tell whose side the show wants the viewer to take but I for one side with Werner on the matter. I don’t know if it’s the desired intent or just a reflection of Adrian Grenier’s limited acting skills but Vinnie Chase looks entirely out of place in Smokejumpers. If the goal is actually to show Werner as crazed and obtuse, it would have been effective to see more of the dailies that he was criticizing rather than concentrating on Vinnie’s infantile denials.

One thing that seemed unarguably correct on Werner’s part was finally banning Drama and Turtle from ‘video village.’ With the dominance of the three other plots, the dynamic duo’s role was essentially reduced to a brief, inconsequential and largely unfunny segment of them playing Wii. Speaking of superfluous, to offset all the continued doom and gloom plotting, the writers begin the episode with the most gratuitous nudity in the show’s history – and that’s really saying something.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Entourage S.5 E.9 - "Pie"

All business tonight. Nary a skirt-chasing moment or recreational activity to be found. All in all, a very serious episode with only a few comedic moments injected here and there which makes for an interesting development in the series.

The episode begins on the first day of principle photography on Smokejumpers. Jason Patric has taken over the lead role from Edward Norton (no mention of why Norton dropped out) and he’s a self-centered, fast-talking, pie-stealing egomaniac who keeps jumping over all of Vinnie’s dialogue during the shoot. Stellan Skarsgard (Mamma Mia) joins the likes of Val Kilmer, Giovanni Ribisi and Martin Landau in the increasing pool of celebrities doing a guest spot on the show that isn’t spoofing their real life persona. Skarsgard plays Werner, the director of Smokejumpers – a thickly-accented German with a propensity for talking fast and shooting quickly – clearly modeled after real-life firecracker Werner Herzog (Aguire: The Wrath of God, Rescue Dawn).

Vinnie is uneasy and unconfident on the set of the film despite having his boys along to provide moral support. One of the early scenes features the boys riding to set on the back of a production truck and discussing Vinnie’s nerves. It’s an interesting variation on the walk-and-talk sequence that offers the viewer a glimpse at the behind-the-scenes process of filmmaking and also boasts some impressive production design. Although, there’s a strange moment of inconsistency when they arrive on set to witness a series of explosions and E tells Vince “It’s going to be like every other movie you’ve ever done… only bigger.” I guess he’s not counting Aquaman – the highest grossing movie ever in Entourage world – because it was mostly shot in the studio? More in character is Drama’s response to Jason Patric walking over Vinnie’s lines by comparing the situation to his guest spot on Melrose Place and a similar debacle between him and Andrew Shue. When the problem persists, Drama utters the night’s funniest – and easiest – line: “It’s Shue all over again!”

When Vinnie confronts Patric he finds out that in fact Werner is the one giving away all his lines. It’s an interesting development because from what we see of Vinnie on set, it seems to me like Werner has the right idea by lessening Vinnie’s part. When we see Vinnie in frame with all the other actors he looks like an out-of-place kid who doesn’t have the gait or appearance of a fireman, unlike Jason Patric who slips effortlessly into the role. He also seems awfully juvenile in his on-set comportment, palling around with his three buddies all the time; he looks particularly pathetic when his confrontation with Patric is supplemented by Drama’s interjection of “You tell him bro!” Seems to me like Werner has the right idea by giving Vinnie as little to do as possible. Not sure if that’s the intention of the writers but it will be very interesting to see what direction the season’s last three episodes take, could be a very different kind of development in Entourage. The writers finally demonstrated a willingness to chink away at Vinnie’s armor last night by not giving him a buxom production assistant to flirt with or a craft service girl to bang during lunch. Who knows how much further they’re willing to take him away from his comfort zone.

The night’s b-plot concerned Ari meeting with an old friend from his early days in Hollywood, Andrew Klein (Gary Cole). Ari and Klein started out in the same firm but when the firm disintegrated Ari’s career skyrocketed and Klein’s settled into a profitable but unglamorous career as a TV lit agent. Klein comes to Ari asking for a loan to solve a temporary cash-flow problem due to the writer’s strike and Ari decides he wants to buy Klein’s company so that Klein can move out of the valley and reclaim a life as an important Hollywood agent. However, Ari’s partner Babs (Beverly D’Angelo) regards Klein as dead weight and refuses to support Ari’s decision. Although, anyone who has been reading the trades knows that one way or another, Gary Cole will be a recurring character in the next season.

Like Vince’s plot, Ari’s plot was played for minimal laughs and mostly concerned with character development. Ari continues to show his softer and kinder side and I still have trouble buying it but nevertheless, reaching out to an old friend and respecting old ties looks good on Ari and there were a few sweet moments last night. Completely out-of-sync with these plots was a minor strand concerning Turtle stealing Patric’s nameplate from his chair and Drama taking a dump in his trailer. Both actions reeked of sitcom convention, especially when Werner started sending out threats to whoever stole the chair over a megaphone. Fortunately, the plot was not resolved in typical sitcom fashion and the situation defused itself very quickly, which is indicative of one of my favorite qualities about Entourage. Unlike traditional sitcoms (and Newton’s Third Law), not every action has an equal and opposite reaction.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas: Moving Pains

"...there is the potential for The Boy in the Striped Pajamas to double as both a well-made film and an educational implement for young viewers: the film develops in a delicate manner that is optimal for introducing the atrocities of the Holocaust in an uncompromising but measured mode. However, the film’s shocking and crushing conclusion strikes me as unnecessarily cruel toward the viewer in a Lars Von Trier sort of way."

Click here to read my entire review in The L Magazine

Monday, October 27, 2008

Entourage S. 5 E. 8 - "First Class Jerk"

On the business side of things, Vince continues his spiral of depression when he gets offered a role on a TV show and Ari deliberates on what to do about his studio head job. Just as Michael at Entourage the Blog sagely predicted last week, Ari bows out of the position but recommends Dana Gordon to take the job, ensuring that Vinnie will get to be on Smokejumpers. In the episode’s best scene, Ari and his wife discuss the prospect of leaving his agency and Mrs. Ari raises the first valid reason I’ve heard for Ari to decline the job: he loves being his own boss. Lloyd voices the second: he wouldn’t be able to hurl as many homosexual slurs. At other points in the episode Ari expresses his concern about not being able to get Vince on Smokejumpers if he doesn’t take the job which still strikes me as a petty reason for that kind of decision.

On the fraternal side of the plot, Turtle meets Jaime Lynn Sigler (The Sopranos) on their flight back from Hawaii and allegedly gets somewhat physical with her over the Pacific. Drama, enraged and refusing to believe Turtle’s good fortune, goes around town blabbing about Turtle’s claim to anyone and everyone to try and embarrass Turtle into admitting it’s not true. In the end, Jaime Lynn finds Turtle at a club and splashes her drink in his face for talking about their mid-air tryst. Realizing that Turtle wasn’t lying, he tries to take the bullet and confess to Jaime Lynn that it was his fault but it’s too late. This sub-plot was fairly grating due to Drama’s callousness but on the other hand, it was entirely realistic. Turtle wouldn’t be able to keep it to himself and jealous friends like Drama and E would go around advertising it until it’s no longer a secret.

Serviceable as a transition episode but little else, next week looks to be a solid change of pace as we fast-forward to Vinnie on the set of Smokejumpers which apparently has been fast-tracked and in the process lost Edward Norton and gained Jason Patrick in the lead role. Which makes me wonder what kind of Hollywood universe Entourage takes place in: Frank Darabont is repeatedly branded a genius this episode(come on Shawshank was 14 years ago!) and then Vinnie Chase is considered a second lead behind Jason Patrick? Jason Patrick couldn’t headline Speed 2: Cruise Control.

Next week’s episode looks to be a great move because for once we’ll get to see Vinnie on the set of a movie mid-season (rather than placing it in the in-between season ellipsis) and apparently see him floundering rather than coasting through. It’s nice that the prelude to Smokejumpers won’t be strung out interminably throughout the rest of the season but it makes me question the need to have Giovanni Ribisi and Lukas Haas play the screenwriters since they haven’t had much significance thus far.

On an unrelated note, I like the way HBO has changed its pre-episode tag-line description to: “Whether you’re winning or losing, the game of fame is always a trip.”