Monthly Archives: August 2011

Summer 2011: In Which Woody Allen Saves Hollywood

Summer is the season that studios are supposed to provide audiences with movies that provide unforgettable entertainment. In the past, this season has given us “Jaws” and “Star Wars.” Gone are those great days. In the outside world, it was one of the hottest summers on records. In cinemas across the country, it was one of the most miserable.

The summer of 2011 was the summer in which 3D killed itself along with good storytelling, with few notable exceptions. Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris,” without even meaning to be, became everything that the summer movie should be: wise and whimsical escapism. It is the most memorable movie he has made in years, and one that deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as “Annie Hall” and “Hannah and Her Sisters.”
Summer movies are all about creating a spectacle and the site of 1920s Paris is a spectacle, albeit one that didn’t cost $300 million to shoot.”Midnight in Paris” is Allen’s return to his anti-intellectualism roots. Some scenes are about as good as the Marshall McLuhan scene from “Annie Hall.” Plus, Owen Wilson is the most convincing Woody Allen stand-in to grace the screen thus far.
Before getting to the mediocre, it is necessary to acknowledge the good. Most of the best summer movies were definitely not saved for last. “Bridesmaids” was not the groundbreaking triumph in the women’s rights movement as some suggested, but simply a near-perfect comedy. “Bridesmaids” works because of its playful anti-romantic comedy feel that’s sometimes nasty but never really mean. In other words, it loves every single one of its characters. All of the dialogue and situations flow with the awkward and unforced feel of reality. One of the most underrated masters of awkward comedy (Paul Feig) got his moment in the sun. And the star and co-writer, Kristen Wiig, has gone from “Saturday Night Live” skit saver to bankable Hollywood actress. Sometimes, success in Hollywood can be well deserved.
Also at summer’s beginning was the superb “The Tree of Life.” It was a head scratcher, but more in the “2001: A Space Odyssey” sense. At this point in his career, Terrence Malick has earned the right to tell a story that jumps back and forth between the creation of the universe, 1950s Texas, and dinosaurs. Even in their shortest moments, those family scenes felt so real. It was never meant to create a complete portrait of their lives, but it is rather the story of how our memories, and our very existences, fit in to the universe as a whole. In the whole scheme of things, does it really matter how we live our lives? That is a question, along with many others that Malick raises, that countless people will explore for years to come.
The great thing about a film about “The Tree of Life” is that it didn’t pander to its audience in order to make something that they want. Sometimes, the best directors make different and difficult movies because sometimes, those are the movies we ought to be seeing more of. Unfortunately, some filmmakers don’t seem to realize that, and that plays a part in this mediocre summer. I didn’t see “Transformers 3″ or “Green Lantern” or “Thor,” so I can’t speak for any of those movies. However, I did see “Super 8.” While it was a highly entertaining and superbly made piece of 70s nostalgia throughout, its ending reversed all its progress. It is great that J.J. Abrams took his time on his film and didn’t reveal the monster instantaneously. However, its ending resolved every plot line too quickly and too easily and what should have been thrilling came out as dull.
“Horrible Bosses” also missed the mark just slightly. While its three leads (Jason Bateman, Jason Sudekis, Charlie Day) pulled off three of the best comedic performances I’ve seen in years, a certain part of the story involving a navigation system turned the film into a sellout. The characters get themselves into some pretty terrible situations thanks to their stupidity, but letting them off the hook that easily doesn’t seem fair to anyone. Despite that, Bateman can still deliver a punchline with flawless deadpan, and Day can seem innocently insane even when he’s not parading cats with mittens around.
In the end though, 2011 can be defined as “The Summer of Meh.” This is not the state of an angry reaction, but rather an uncaring one. I could talk about how terrible “Cowboys & Aliens” is but nothing about that movie really motivates me to. “Midnight in Paris” was the rare film that deserved to be seen by a wide audience and with a little patience, it was. “Terri” is probably going to go on my year end list, but it won’t be in a theater near you anytime ever.
This summer, movies lost their mojo. Hopefully, Hollywood will take this as a learn from their mistakes rather than ignore them, as they always do. Perhaps superhero movies and shoddy 3D are on the way out. While it is understandable that story doesn’t always get people in the theater, it should go without saying that the audience enjoy the product they are paying to see. Luckily, the fall and winter seasons look promising (“Moneyball” and “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” particularly). For now, just enjoy some of the fine programming cable television has had to offer this summer. For instance, have you watched “Breaking Bad” yet?
This is one of the funniest still images from a movie ever. Why isn’t this a meme yet?

Movie Review: The Devil’s Double

The most frightening villains are not the ones who are imagined, nor the ones who are merely real, but the ones in which it frightens us that they actually existed. One of these people is Uday Hussein, the most infamous of Saddam’s two sons. Here is a man so frighteningly sadistic that even the man who is hired (or should I say, forced) to be his double can’t do it.

“The Devil’s Double” is the true story of the man who would be Hussein’s body double, Latif Yahia (Dominic Cooper), and how he eventually escaped with one of Uday’s women (Ludivine Sagnier). Yahia went to the same privileged school as Uday (Dominic Cooper, again), and the two were deemed lookalikes by their classmates. After Uday threatens to harm Latif’s family, Latif reluctantly accepts Uday’s offer. It is not the promise of getting everything he wants, but rather the need to save his family, that brings him into this dangerous world. This is the first hint that “The Devil’s Double” is not quite the Iraqi “Scarface” that the television spots make it out to be.
Latif realizes from the moment he is told about the job that being Uday’s double would require him to “extinguish himself.” This is easier said than done, because of the magnitude of change Latif would have to go to in order to transform himself into Uday. Latif is a selfless man from modest means who nearly died for his country. Uday has enough money for a collection of diamond-studded gold watches.
Uday spends his time rounding up as many women as possible, some of age and some not. He lusts, and never desires, any of these women. Collecting women seems less a need to fulfill sexual desire and more a need to show off his power. This comes to light during a horrifying bit when he steals the bride a friend of his had just married.
In a challenging bit that requires him to play two very different people, Cooper steals the show. Then again, there really isn’t anyone to steal the show from. He really steals it from himself. He portrays two very different people not just through the modulation of his voice. He is able to channel both good and evil through his eyes. When looking at Latiff, it is as if an angel exists through his pupils. Uday’s eyes convey someone who is constantly disgruntled and never satisfied with anything besides himself. There is an endless fire burning in his eyes.
“The Devil’s Double” never really bothers to explain or justify Uday’s insane antics. There is a lot to explain, but nothing to justify. As the movie shows, and since we are in the world of film that means what the movie shows is absolute truth, Uday lived a sheltered life. Since his father was Saddam, whatever he want, he got. He could get away with murder, literally.
There are many movies that use a decent person’s perspective in order to portray the mind and madness of a psychotic ruler. “The Last King of Scotland” did this most effectively. The problem in “The Devil’s Double” is that Latif’s story is interesting, but his character is not. Cooper as Uday totally overpowers Cooper as Latif.
“The Devil’s Double” never has a dull moment. It provides an enthralling story from the beginning and never slows down the endless adrenaline that flows through it. Maybe it runs on too much adrenaline, and it tries too hard to make its subject matter mainstream. In this day and age, casting no Iraqis and not allowing the characters to speak in their native tongue. Most of the actors are British and contrary to prior belief, British people and people from Muslim countries are not similar. However, it is a step up from the brown faces that mark the fatal flaw of “Lawrence of Arabia.”
Scenes such as the one where Uday cuts open a man’s stomach, and his organs and his organs are exposed rather graphically, lack clear vision and rely on the weakness of showing everything in order to shock. The beginning, which is devoid of dialogue, intertwined with real footage, and somewhat ambiguous (is that Uday? Or Latif?) is a completely different movie. Uday’s strange relationship with his mother is briefly alluded to, but never brought into fruition. The thoughts that Uday either learned his habits from his father, or was continually trying to anger him, come to mind throughout.
These problems undermine the flashes of brilliance throughout. The scene in which Saddam confronts his son over one of his worst offenses is chilling because of what could have happened.
The film’s weak ending, which comes a few minutes too soon, is a reminder that this is no probe of history but rather an escape action film. It eventually becomes a noteworthy film for its powerful central performance and the uncannily privileged world it brings the audience into. If ever there was a category for this film, “The Devil’s Double” would be called pop history.

Movie Review: The Guard

Brendan Gleeson seems like an easy guy to underestimate. Yet, his snarl can be as furious as his slow yet subtle comic timing. It is this element of surprise that makes him such a vital, unforgettable part of “The Guard.”

In “The Guard,” Gleeson plays Sergeant Gerry Boyle, the only uncorrupt cop in a small Irish town where most of the residents speak Gaelic, pub visits are routine, and murder and drug rings usually aren’t recurrent. That is, until the day Gerry investigates a car crash that leads him to a huge shipment of cocaine into the country. The FBI comes to investigate, and Gerry is teamed up with the more traditional Wendall (Don Cheadle) to break up the drug ring. Wendall comes from a privileged midwestern African American family. Gerry gives off the notion that he’s never been within ten feet of a black person in his life. “I’m Irish. Racism is part of my culture,” Gerry quips. This certainly is not the immediate start of a beautiful friendship.
Make no mistake, “The Guard” is not some social commentary against racism. Ignorance is simply a part of its humor. It’s funny not just because Gerry has such a warped perception of other races, but because he can’t even get his racial stereotypes straight.
Yet, even in his meanest, most unaware moments, Gerry is never a detestable character in the slightest bit. In a position like he is in, his unenlightened views can only hide an immeasurable amount of brains.
“The Guard” works like most comedies today don’t by never dropping a joke. Every punchline, every small scene in a means of leading to another joke later on. You didn’t think those prostitutes were for nothing, did you?
“The Guard” is written and directed by John Michael McDonagh. He is the brother of Martin McDonagh, the theater and screenwriter who made “In Bruges” (which, probably not coincidently, Gleeson also starred in). John took some notes from his brother’s style and incorporates that same pitch black humor, self-awareness, and ambiguity that made “In Bruges” a modern classic. “The Guard” doesn’t exactly reach the life-pondering depth of “Bruges” but it nearly achieves the sly mystery of that film in its ending.
In their efforts, the two brothers have created what can be defined as the Irish lifestyle and humor. The lives of both cops and criminals revolve around the happening of the pub. This is their version of a coffeehouse. That is, a coffeehouse where people can drunkenly embarrass themselves as well as share ideas. Irish men also seem to come with preconceived perceptions of others, as well as street smarts. These traits may be defined both by the rural landscape in which they inhabit, and the unholy amount of Guinness and whiskey that they drink.
Like “Bruges,” “The Guard” ends up being both a fish-out-of-water and a buddy comedy. “The Guard” is a film that rewards those who wait and by the end their partnership isn’t just a means of solving this crime; it has involved into a full-fledged unorthodox friendship. Those are truly the best friends you can find in life: the ones that are nothing like you and yet in those differences, you find something you can hinge on to.
“The Guard” plays as a crime thriller comedy with a straight face almost the whole way through. Unlike say, “Hot Fuzz” this is not a giant sendup on the action movie genre. It seems more of a tribute to how hilarious it can be to step away from all PC boundaries. However, it does go meta for a moment, when a character suggests this story become a movie. Going meta is never a bad touch.
Despite being a comedy, “The Guard” does right in not going for the easy ending. I won’t say what it is, but all I will say is that you are not dumb if you can’t figure it out. Either way that it could go would make sense for completely different reasons. Either way it is definitely life affirming.
When they first meet, Wendall says to Gerry, “I can’t tell if you’re really fucking dumb, or really fucking smart.” Besides the hilarious racism, that’s what makes Gerry so memorable: perhaps he is a little bit of both.
I don’t normally impose upon my readers to see a movie. But this has been a particularly weak summer for movies. If “The Guard” is playing in a theater near you, you’d be really fucking dumb not see it.

Movie Review: 30 Minutes or Less

Who knew that a bunch of perverted, back-stabbing slackers based on the true story that ended in the death of an innocent person could end up being funny?

“30 Minutes or Less” is that movie that asks us to love characters we want to hate. The film never has any trouble “going there” but at a paltry 83 minutes, I can only feel that it reached just half of its potential.
Jesse Eisenberg, plays Nick, perhaps the least likable character in an oeuvre that includes Mark Zuckerberg. Unlike Zuckerberg, Nick has no motivation. He works as a delivery man for a 30 minutes or less pizza restaurant. I’ve never actually seen a 30 minutes or less pizza restaurant in my life, but they did exist in “Dirty Work” and “Spider-Man 2.” In the spirit of those films, Nick can never deliver a pizza on time.
The only person who can stand to be around Nick is his friend Chet (Aziz Ansari), who has advanced slightly farther than Nick has in the world (he is a grade school teacher). Nick is as fast and smart-mouthed as the comedian who plays him, and he likes to be mean to kids. As always, adults making fun of kids is hilarious.
On the other side of the slacker spectrum are Dwayne (Danny McBride) and Travis (Nick Swardson). Dwayne is delusional and psychotic. His view towards women cannot be redeemed by any form of charm. Travis, the more rational of the two, has a slight intelligence that is totally masked by his slow wit. The two of them seem to believe they are characters from “Die Hard,” all while doing unspeakable things to a 3D television.
Dwayne’s father (Fred Ward), a former army major, just wants Dwayne to get out of the house. Conversly, Dwayne just wants him to die so he can have his fortune. So, he hires a hitman (Michael Pena) to kill his father. In order to get the $100,000 necessary to hire the hitman, he kidnaps Nick, straps a bomb to his chest, and forces him to rob a bank. In a panic, Nick reluctantly turns to Chet for help. Chet is not happy about this. After all, Nick did hook up with his sister.
“30 Minutes or Less” is dirty. It is vulgar mostly in the verbal, rather than visual, sense. Strangely, it never gets overwhelming and it never feels forced. It just sounds like people talking with each other.
The film’s casting choices are basically flawless. All of these actors have basically played these characters before, but that doesn’t mean they still can’t play them well. McBride channels his Kenny Powers charmlessness into something very sinister while Swardson plays off the child-like idiocy that helped him steal the show in “Grandma’s Boy.” Eisenberg is often mistaken for Michael Cera. I never understood this, as Cera’s social awkwardness makes him seem sweet while Eisenberg’s awkwardness makes him seem mentally unstable. It works out perfectly here. Eisenberg and Ansari make a great duo, whether they are robbing a bank or slap fighting.
Most uncomfortable comedy focuses on the hilarity of things totally falling apart. Sometimes, that moment before things totally fall apart is so painful that its funny. “30 Minutes or Less” does the opposite: it puts all of its incompetent characters into situations in which failure seems inevitable, and allows them to succeed. Yes, it makes little sense that they were able to hijack someone’s car without getting caught, but its hilarious that they say “thank you” to the person who’s car they steal.
No matter how much I laughed during “30 Minutes or Less,” I had the continuous feeling that something was missing. Most comedies don’t need a very long running time in order to feel complete. “Duck Soup” clocks in at just 68 minutes. A comedy so short should feel like a manic race to make the audience laugh as much as possible rather than a manic race to wrap the story up. While “30 Minutes or Less” is more the latter than the former, it still left so much out. I would have preferred more emphasis on the buddy comedy aspect of the film as opposed to that whole confrontation with the hitman. This might be a mainstream summer comedy, but they didn’t have to stick to plot structure that strictly. The film acts like the bank robbery and closeness to death changed Nick for the best. While things feel different in the end, it still feels as if he didn’t deserve his maturation.
At first, I felt relieved that in its ending, “30 Minutes or Less” didn’t cheat itself as much as the ending of “Horrible Bosses” did (in terms of solving everything with that navigation system). But the film ends with the attitude that money can solve everything. However, this can’t negate the fact that Nick is still an unlikable loser.
“30 Minutes or Less” wants to be a Coen Brothers caper gone wrong filled with lowlifes mixed with the dirtiness of the typical Apatow comedy. However, Dwayne and Travis’s desperation can’t elicit the pity from pathetic desperation. And while the characters in this film are all fun to watch, they possess no redeeming qualities. Perhaps that is fully intended, but not even Nick’s love for Kate (Dilshad Vadsaria) can redeem him at all.
With an all star cast and a promising young director (Ruben Fleischer’s last feature was “Zombieland”), “30 Minutes or Less” had the potential to be a well above average comedy during the summer doldrums. In the end, it turns out to be an average one. It is short, and never too deep. And as Swardson’s Travis would obviously forget to say, “that’s what she said.”
It’s safe to say that Aziz Ansari steals most of the scenes he is in. It would have been nice if they let him throw a few nicknames in though.

The Shawshank Redemption: On Life in Prison and Life in General

Warning: Spoilers Ahead.

Thanks to AMC, which would be the best movie station on TV if not for all the f—ing bleeps, “The Shawshank Redemption” has been playing nearly every week this summer. Despite being the banner image of this blog for well over a year, “The Shawshank Redemption” has not gotten its moment in the sun here. It’s time for that to change.
“The Shawshank Redemption” has earned its place among cinema’s finest. That’s a huge feat for a movie that was critically and commercially shunned upon initial release. Today, it is famously ranked as the greatest movie of all time on IMDB’s Top 250; just one notch below “The Godfather.” The legacy of “Shawshank” has increased over the years. That is in large part because of its emotional impact. This is one of the few movies that could make a grown man cry. You might get teary eyed from Brooks’s final monologue. Or, perhaps it will hit you after that last shot, as the gentle Pacific and the endless stretch of beach frames two friends reuniting for the first time, finally free. That’s the one that always gets me.
Much of the film’s emotion comes from Frank Darabont’s incredibly human direction. He lives by the rule that what can’t be seen is more powerful than everything we do see. During the aforementioned scene in which Brooks says his final goodbye to the world, the camera makes his suicide all the more devastating. We never actually see him hang himself, but instead we see the pieces of wood coming off the wall as he writes “Brooks is Here,” and finally we see his the table fall from under him as his feet shake, and then remain in a still, and eerily peaceful, state.
“Shawshank” is a film that carries strong ethos to match its pathos. Its story of a corrupt prison is as much about a corrupt prison as it is about corrupt society as a whole, and how the human mind and soul fit in.
Before we get into that, let’s start from the beginning. Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) is a banker sentenced to life in prison after his adulterous wife is found dead, and he is found guilty of the murder., despite his claim of innocence. Dufresne is a quiet man, and this makes people misinterpret him as a cold man with no remorse. Really, his silence hides an intelligence far beyond most others. Andy is sent to the corrupt Shawshank Prison, where forms a friendship with Red (Morgan Freeman) during his two decade imprisonment. Red tells Andy that he is “the only guilty man in Shawshank.”
It seems customary at this point that every film about a life of imprisonment must have a lead character who doesn’t belong. In “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” R.P. (Jack Nicholson) wasn’t actually insane (like most of the other men at the hospital). And while Luke from “Cool Hand Luke” actually did commit a crime, he has a spirit too big for the hellish southern prison he’s been placed in. Perhaps it is through all of these eccentric characters that we see that these institutions offer punishment, but no rehabilitation, for any of the people that are sent to them.
In “Shawshank,” prison is more than a dehumanizing place. It is an industry, and a world of its own. In this industry though, cigarettes are used as currency.
It makes sense that a place as isolated as prison would become a world of its own. What is so interesting about “Shawshank” is that it mirrors the creation of society. The men are supposed to enter from the real world with something of a blank slate, as they are expected to eventually feel guilt and want to change as a result of their prison sentences. There are many ways to “save” men. The Warden (Bob Gunton) believes salvation is found through Jesus Christ. Every man who wants to follow this path seems to do it just as a cover up for wrongdoing. Then, there is Andy’s way of thinking. During the scene in which he plays Mozart over the loud speaker, he is exposing the deprived prisoners to culture. None of the prisoners understand what the woman is saying in the song, but they know that it is moving. There is a sort of universal language that runs through every work of art, a kind of language that those obsessed with power are too blind to understand. Andy is not a machine, he is a record player: he has the cheerful, care-free flow of great music constantly flowing through him.
In these respects, “Shawshank” is about the relationship between the powerful and the powerless. Darabount uses this idea to give, well, sympathy to some people who don’t really deserve it. The scene in which Bogs (Mark Rolston), Andy’s tormentor, gets what is coming to him ends up being more painful than cathartic. That is because Bogs is literally dragged into his own cell by the ruthless Captain Hadley (Clancy Brown). Even if someone is bad, once they become helpless, you immediately feel for them. This is a case of “A Clockwork Orange” Syndrome: no fight is fair if both sides cannot stand up for themselves. It is someone’s right to choose whether they want to defend themselves. Once that right is taken away, that man ceases to truly live.
And that is what the redemption of “The Shawshank Redemption” truly is: gaining freedom. It is not just the freedom to return to the outside world. The outside world is a place that “got itself in a big damn hurry.” It is about achieving inner freedom: the freedom to explore, learn, and make decisions for oneself.
“The Shawshank Redemption” is many more things that a few more viewings might help me find. It uses religion as a way to raise its hero into savior status, all while showing the ways that religion can be linked to the triumph of evil. It is a brilliant choice of letting Red, rather than Andy, narrate the story. This is not just because Morgan Freeman is the only person who could emulate what God would probably sound like, but because it adds a narrative complexity. Andy is a mystery. So is his overall escape mission. If the film were told from Andy’s perspective, the mystery would be gone. Andy also doesn’t quite seem to understand why he is so unique. Only an outsider could explain why. Another brilliant narrative technique? The fact that the clothing worn by three different women (Rita Hayworth, Marilyn Monroe, Raquel Welch) marks the passage of time in the film.
I don’t take much credence in the IMDB Top 250, but the fact that “The Shawshank Redemption” tops the list gives me some faith in it. Even if it isn’t the greatest film of all time, this top spot shows that the next generation that will control the movies, and the common opinion of movies, actually has some good taste. Perhaps, “The Shawshank Redemption” will one day be considered as timeless as “Casablanca” and “Citizen Kane.” I don’t think anyone would really mind.