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Column Fri Jan 16 2009
Che, Defiance, Last Chance Harvey, My Bloody Valentine 3-D, Chandni Chowk to China, Paul Blart: Mall Cop, Notorious and Good Dick
Well, we're three weekends into the new year, and I'm already doing a movie roundup. And this might be the absolute worst week to pull something like this, but I've been so busy that I must resort to capsule reviews. But the good news is, I've got links to some pretty kick-ass interviews I've done in the last month or so, if I do say so myself. Enjoy.
Even before the film opened in limited release late last year, the controversy about making such a selective biography film (technically two films) on Ernesto "Che' Guevara was swirling around director Steven Soderbergh. Is Che portrayed as a torturer and killer of men in Soderbergh's nearly four-and-a-half-hour film? Not really. He's shown as tough, insulting, and focused to a fault. He's also shown as dedicated, loyal to a fault, organized, and cautious. In a strange way, Che is about as unconventional a biography as you could make about someone in desperate need of a definitive cinematic portrait. It took me about four seconds to forget I was looking at Benecio del Toro as Guevara. He's so good and convincing that you don't even notice it. Between his two-part film, Soderbergh is not interested in telling the whole story, just representative portions. The more conventional first film samples bits of Che's life: when he first met Fidel Castro (Demian Bichir) in Mexico City, where they set to plot out Cuba's future; when he worked tirelessly to train new rebels in the revolutionary fight against oppression by the Cuban governments; when he traveled to New York City to speak before the United Nations and do interviews with mostly U.S. press. The second film (which is even projected in a different aspect ratio) is solely focused on Guevara's efforts to bring about a communist revolution to Bolivia. It's a more straightforward, day-after-day look at Guevera's personality and abilities to rally people. Soderbergh isn't content to simply tell us or imply that Che was a man of the people; he shows us Che shaking hand after hand with dozens of comrades, attempting to make each one feel like they are a part of something greater than themselves.
Whether you love or despise Che, it's an endurance test, especially the second film, which almost feels like it's in real time, despite the fact that it takes place over a year. But in some ways, it's this second half that shows us the true nature of Guevara's strength as a leader and his weaknesses as a man (both in body and mind). Che is as much a function of what it does as what it doesn't do. Soderbergh is not interested in building kings or tearing them down. He's not trying to discover the man behind the t-shirt face. He shows us a handful of defining moments in the first film, and a fateful year in the life of Guevara in the second. Long takes are the order of the day, and this lends a naturalistic approach to the proceedings. But I love Soderbergh's faith that this immersion style of filmmaking will get the job done. Thankfully, it does. Che represents Soderbergh at his most free-form and experimental. He's not afraid to wander, and show us some of Guevara's seemingly small moments, but he also makes it clear that the man lived the revolutionary lifestyle more completely than anyone around him. Assuming you make it through to the other side, the experience of watching Che is as satisfying a time as I've had in quite some time. It was also frustrating, squirm inducing, and indulgent to the point of distraction. But I'd expect nothing less when one magnificent filmmaking personality attempts to tell the story of one of the world's most personality-driven figures. Che is a damn good movie, but don't be surprised if you walk out of the film with just as many questions about its subject as you had going in. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.
Go to Ain't It Cool News to read my exclusive interviews with Che director Steven Soderbergh and the man who plays Fidel Castro in Che, Demian Bichir.
Three grown Jewish brothers (Daniel Craig, Liev Schreiber, and Jamie Bell) set out to live in the woods and possibly fight back against the encroaching Nazi presence in their little corner of Eastern Europe. But what they began turned into hundreds of people living in the woods, building homes, schools and many other institutions in an effort to recapture their humanity and possibly win their own sliver of World War II in 1941. Based on a true story, Defiance goes from being a story of people simply hiding in the woods to people rebuilding society, rules and a faith structure. As strong as the performances are and as inherently compelling as the story is, something about the film never quite did it for me. Perhaps it was the noticeably forced love story between Craig and one of the women in the makeshift community. It feels utterly out of place in this film, even though I'm sure romances bloomed under just these circumstances.
At one point during the movie, Schreiber leaves the group to go fight the Germans more directly with the local army. When the brothers aren't working and living together — often fighting among themselves — the movie just doesn't work as well. And while I'm sure there was a great deal of tension among the Jews in this rather large group, the film spends far too much time exploring these tensions when I would have much rather it examine the way these desperate people carved out an existence and kept from getting caught by outside oppressors. That might not have made for quite as dramatic a film, but it would have felt more believable and less scripted. Director Edward Zwick (Glory, Blood Diamond) has an uncanny way of staging complicated battle sequences so they make perfect sense, and that talent is on full display here. I also liked the way Zwick makes us absolutely feel the bitter cold of the long winters in those woods and the hunger each survivor endures day after day. When he does zero in on the individual struggles of these people, most of whom haven't had to rough it a day in their life prior to this experience, the film thrives. Defiance never allows the brothers to appear saintly or overly heroic; part of the reason they know the woods so well is that they've hid from authorities in them in the past. But that almost makes them greater men. They fell into this responsibility by accident, but they embraced the ancient believe that if you save a life, you are responsible for it forever. Defiance is solid, sometimes stoic, filmmaking that has its less interesting moments but overall succeeds as a work that highlight everyday heroism rather than the kind that comes from duty. On that level and for those reasons, I'm recommending it.
Last Chance Harvey
Dustin Hoffman plays the titular character, a lifelong New Yorker whose days as a commercial jingle writer are seemingly at an end. He's spent his entire life working his ass off at the expense of his family — he's long divorced, and he and his daughter (Liane Balaban) aren't close. His employment seems particularly perilous right at the time when he needs to fly to London for his daughter's wedding. Harvey's ex-wife (Kathy Baker) and her new husband (James Brolin) are hosting most of the out-of-town guests and just generally running the show, while Harvey is exiled to a hotel to await the weekend's activities. The final straw for Harvey is at the rehearsal dinner when his daughter tells him that she's rather have her stepfather walk her down the aisle and give her away at the wedding. With his job hanging by a thread and no real reason in his mind to be at the wedding, Harvey decides to return to New York. Naturally, Harvey misses his plane and while waiting in the hotel bar, he meets Kate (the always-engaging Emma Thompson), a survey taker who works at the airport. She's standoffish at first — more content to read her book than talk to this stranger — but eventually Harvey breaks through and they end up talking and spending the day strolling through London while the wedding is going on.
Kate's story is less developed but no less painful to watch than Harvey's. She's an attractive, middle-aged woman who has essentially written off any chance at a relationship at this point in her life, which is not to say she's against the idea. She has an overbearing, slightly paranoid mother that calls her about once an hour when Kate isn't visiting her and listening to her constant suspicions about her neighbors. It's a brutal routine of a life that is in desperate need of being broken. Last Chance Harvey is best when Thompson and Hoffman (who first paired up in Stranger Than Fiction) are simply walking and talking in this Before Sunrise/Sunset for the older set. Their conversation isn't staggeringly deep or profound, but these are two actors that I have never tired of listening to over the years, and it's lovely just to see them reveal so much about their slightly underwritten characters with small tells. Eventually Kate talks Harvey into returning to his daughter's happy day, which has already entered the reception portion of the festivities. And when the film enters its third act — a planned meeting the next day at a set location that, of course, goes amiss, the film gets noticeably weak. But here's the obvious thing: you either want to watch Hoffman and Thompson together on screen or you don't. If you do, you'll watch their banter with a smile on your face. If you don't, odds are you won't even be in the theater, so why the hell are you reading this? Last Chance Harvey doesn't have lofty ambitions or set out to be anything other than a sweet film about two lost souls who find it in their power to change their lives one last time. It's a nice notion that I found easy to buy into, but about 24 hours after I saw the film, its impact had largely vanished from my life. Take that for what it's worth.
My Bloody Valentine 3-D
I was raised on '80s horror, plain and simple. And I can't think of a film made in this century that has come as close to reviving in me that giddy and ramped-up sensation I used to get watching this films as a teenager. My oldest and best friend, Matt, and I used to raid the local video store and grab up a half-dozen titles to last us the weekend, or hit the local multiplex if a new film was opening. But horror of late has consisted of either watered-down PG-13 original junk; soulless, pointless remake of American, Japanese or Korean works; or some combination of the two. Yes, My Bloody Valentine is a remake, but it's a remake of a film that I never thought was that special to begin with. I remember liking the authentic feel of the coal-mining town where the movie was shot, but beyond that I remember MBV being a poorly shot piece that wasn't even good enough to spark a franchise. In the '80s, any horror film could get a franchise off the ground!
Simply put, this new version in glorious, in-your-face 3-D, absolutely blows your ass out. Blood, body parts, weapons and naked bodies are thrown in your face with wild abandon. I couldn't help but think of some other filmmakers that have worked in 3-D lately that have made such a big deal about how they didn't "go crazy" with the third dimension. They talk about using the 3-D in subtle ways, to capture perspective and depth of field — and there is some of that here. But director Patrick Lussier basically looked at his script (from Todd Farmer and Zane Smith) and said "Fuck subtlety, I'm going to throw everything and the kitChen sink right in the audience's god-damned faces!" and bless him for that. Sometimes, going for broke is the only way. The performances here range from serviceable to very good. I was especially happy to see such diversity in the age of the cast, and I was particularly thrilled to see Tom Atkins return to the genre that made him beloved and to see Kevin Tighe just be the lovable bastard he's been played for decades. And as much as I enjoyed seeing Jaime King and Jensen Ackles do their thing in this movie, let me throw one more name at you that you probably won't know: Betsy Rue. This is a name that will live in my memory banks until the day I day, because she is the star of one of the (if not THE) finest nude scene ever to appear in a horror film. If not the finest, then at least the damn longest I can think of. She's a beautiful woman who knows no fear (and apparently isn't bothered by the cold much either), and is very much into grooming. I can appreciate that.
I could go on and on about the quality of the kills in My Bloody Valentine (yes, there are several dozen ways to kill a person with only a pick axe), and I could complain about the way the film Cheats a little when showing us one particular kill, just to hide the killer's identity until the end of the movie. But all of my small problems with the film drift away when I think of Betsy Rue and her natural breasts and her cute little girlie pistol. She's my new hero, and MBV reminds me of a time in my life when a lot of my heroes wielded sharp objects used in murderous ways. It's a good feeling.
To read my interview with My Bloody Valentine star Jaime King, go to Ain't It Cool News (http://www.aintitcool.com/node/39737)
Chandni Chowk to China
I don't know much about the backstory on this movie other than I saw it, it's a Bollywood film (the first ever to be distributed in America by a big American studio — Warner Bros.), and it's fucking nuts. Many of the Bollywood films I've seen over the years have been unofficial remakes of big American movies. I saw the Bollywood version of Reservoir Dogs and Silence of the Lambs, to name a couple, but Chandni Chowk isn't really a remake. Instead the filmmakers and Indian megastar Akshay Kumar combine the musical roots of Bollywood with Chinese kung-fu movies. Kumar plays Sidhu, a lowly vegetable cutter at a roadside food stand run by his father in Chandni Chowk, Delhi. The guy is a classic screw up, always disappointing his father and rarely living up to his potential. When a group of Chinese men come to Delhi believing Sidhu to be the reincarnation of a dead war hero, they whisk the man away to China, along with his Chinese friend named Chopstick (yes, the film is a tad racist). When Sidhu is pitted against same nasty gangsters terrorizing the village the dead warrior swore to protect, he fails utterly and goes into a deep depression, and he spends the rest of the film trying to regain his self-confidence and fight once again.
With a running time up there with Benjamin Button (as most Bollywood films are wont to do), Chandi Chowk is often quite draining. The comedy is broad and Kumar's performance is so over the top as to be annoying about 50 percent of the time. The story seems unnecessarily dragged out and tedious. What the film has going for it are top-notch musical numbers, some above-average fight sequences, and the lovely Deepika Padukone in the dual roles of long-lost sisters Sakhi and Meow Meow. She's even more beautiful than Slumdog Millionaire's Freida Pinto, and she's on screen a hell of a lot more. Still, despite the gross overacting, extended running time and general silliness of the proceedings, the film is so insanely out there, that it's hard not to find it entertaining most of the time. I think those of you familiar with the Bollywood style and format will probably dig this movie a great deal. For those of you who aren't, this might be a fun introduction to the way hundreds of millions of people on the other side of the world are making movies. I'd be curious to know what you think of this whacked-out kind of cinema.
Paul Blart: Mall Cop
Here's the funny thing (perhaps the only funny thing about the experience of seeing this movie): just before the screening of the new Kevin James "comedy" Paul Blart: Mall Cop began, they played a trailer for Steven Martin's The Pink Panther 2. And I said to the critic next to me, "I guess there is one film I'm less looking forward to seeing than Paul Blart this year." Oh, how we laughed and laughed. But the truth is, I've always found James kind of funny. I never saw "King of Queens," but I have seen his standup on cable, and he does have a sad-sack charm that I have found watchable in films like Hitch (not so much in I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry).
James is the co-creator of this character and this film (which comes from Adam Sandler's production company), and the whole experience of watching Paul Blart made me kind of depressed. The things about James that have made me laugh in the past have nothing to do with him as a physical comedian. Sure, he's made fun of his weight before, but here, the running gag is that's he's playing a Bruce Willis-style security guard turned man on the inside during a hostage situation at the New Jersey mall where he works. And while I'll admit that watching a fat guy do stuff can be funny sometimes, James doesn't quite have what it takes to pull it off. I admire his commitment to this loser character who lives with his mother (Lois Smith) and daughter after his green card wife left him as soon as she became a citizen. James has created a fully realized character here with a damaged psyche and inner strength. The problem is, the shit ain't funny. Much like some of Sandler's films, I was impressed with some of the supporting cast, including Peter Gerety, Adam Ferrara and Bobby Cannavale. But the film is a dud, despite everyone's efforts to elevate the material beyond its mediocre script. I hope James keeps making movies; I'm actually eager to like him more. The guy is just funny enough to be better than this, but I think he needs to stay away from the word processor and work on finding better material.
I know that probably 90 percent of you have absolutely no intention of seeing this film, at least not in the theater, but I'm guessing a large number of that percentage are actually curious about the life story of a musical artist whose legacy seemed set in stone even before he was gunned down in Los Angeles in 1997. And you're right to be curious, because Notorious is a movie that deserves to be taken seriously and is nearly as strong a musical biography as Walk the Line or Ray. This tale of Christopher Wallace (who would grow up an adopt the name Notorious B.I.G.) might exist a bit too much on the surface for some, but I thought it hit just about all the right notes as the story of a young Brooklyn man in desperate need of cash, respect and a creative outlet to use his gift of writing and rapping. Young Chirs (played from ages 8 to 13 by Wallace's real-life son) was a mama's boy (his single mother is played by Angela Bassett), well on his way to being a straight-A student with nerd-like tendencies. But the drug life was calling from all over his neighborhood, and before long he was dealing and pulling in major cash. The film is many things, but a gloss is not one of them. Notorious dives head first into every one of Wallace's many flaws. In one scene we not only see him sell crack to a pregnant woman but he does so with a meanness that makes it hard to forgive. Newcomer Jamal Woolard so scarily embodies Wallace both in looks, movements and voice that I literally forgot what the real man looked like.
Eventually Wallace took his abilities to freestyle rap on the street level to the studio, where he signed with up-and-coming record producer turned mogul Sean "Puffy" Combs (Derek Luke, who has Combs' mannerisms and dance moves down pat) and his fledgling Bad Boy Records. Among many things, Notorious B.I.G. was credited with putting the funk back into hip-hop, and it's fascinating to watch how that happened in the studio, with Combs introducing his familiar sample-heavy beats to Wallace. Notorious also explores Wallace's reputation as a womanizer and unfaithful husband. Naturi Naughton plays Lil Kim, who Wallace plucked from a retail job to become first his freak of the week and eventually into one of the most sexually explicit female rappers ever. But it was the soulful R&B singer and Bad Boy label mate Faith Evans (dead ringer Antonique Smith) whom Wallace actually married after knowing her a short time. What Notorious does expose about Wallace is that he was extremely good at telling people (especially women) what they wanted to hear to keep them from getting mad at him. He may have even meant what he said at the time, but he was a man who had a tough time keeping his urges in Check and had a slightly misguided definition of what being a man and father entailed.
Perhaps the best thing Notorious does is explore the friendship-turned-rivalry between Wallace as L.A. rapper Tupac Shakur (Anthony Mackie). I'm guessed a lot of young hip-hop fans who have only heard about the ridiculous East Coast-West Coast battles thought these two men were always enemies, but the truth is they were friends. Tupac had been around a couple years before B.I.G. came up in the world, and Wallace looked to him for advice and direction. Sure, it was a show business friendship, but it clearly meant something to Wallace. Thankfully, the film doesn't get into the mystery of who shot and killed either Shakur or Wallace, but it does provide some much-needed context to those events, and gives some perspective as to the build-up leading to the insane behavior that led to their deaths. Director George Tillman Jr. (Soul Food, Men of Honor and the producer of the Barbershop movies and Nothing Like the Holidays) isn't concerned with legacy building or protecting. He tells the best story possible about a gifted wordsmith who still had a great deal of growing up to do. Most importantly, the film gives the unindoctrinated a chance to really listen to Wallace's life story as told through his songs. It's for that opportunity alone that I'm grateful this movie was made.
Moderately well received at last year's Sundance Film Festival, this slow-burn dark comedy kind of creeps up on you to the point where you find yourself deeply invested in the two leads almost without realizing it's happening. And whether you like the film or not basically hinges on whether you discover the appeal of Marianna Palka, who plays an unnamed abrasive woman who gets involved with unnamed video store clerk (Jason Ritter). It's clear to me why Ritter finds her attractive — she's a mystery. She rents '70s hardcore porn from his store, never talks, and looks kind of pretty under her fairly unkempt hairstyle. Palka (also the film's first-time writer-director) releases tiny bits of information about her character while she also opens up ever so slightly to Ritter's advances. Her nasty, acerbic rejections of him are very funny, but not as much as his ability to bounce back from any insult and appear even sweeter than he did before. He senses a damaged woman, and he wants to help put her pieces back together. Not always a safe place to go, but he makes it look possible, if not easy.
While many films maintain a sub-basement of darkness to what might be an otherwise light story, Good Dick has an undercurrent of affection and romance to it that ultimately sold me on the movie. It pushes a few nasty and tasteless buttons along the way, but this most unconventional of romantic comedies worked for me as a study of being deeply alone and reaching out for the first time to someone who might be even more desolate than you are. Their relationship feels like it's created on a series of dares to each other, and that to me is the funniest thing about the movie. While I don't want to give away how the film ends, I did like knowing that both characters are better off by the conclusion than they were when we met them, which isn't saying much, but it is saying something. Good Dick is low key but still packs a punch every so often. I really did like this film. The film is playing at the Gene Siskel Film Center on Saturday, Jan. 17 at 8pm; Monday, Jan. 19 at 6pm; Tuesday, Jan. 20 at 8pm; and Thursday, Jan. 22 at 8pm.