Monday, October 5, 2015

a sorry chris evans triple feature

the Perfect Score: (2004. dir: Brian Robbins) Evans is miscast. It ought to have been someone a shade geekier, maybe a Chris Marquette. He ought to have played instead the love-wounded Matty, opposite Scarlett Johansson, with whom he's proved in six films to have an easy but palpable chemistry. This is an MTV revamp of the Breakfast Club, brainless, witless, and without merit, excepting the few moments of truth the young actors can coax from the piece. Erika Christensen, for example, is the smart girl who learns to tap into her inner slut. She gets the awkward, stuck-inside-her-head part right, but does nothing else particularly well, and the bit on the rooftop where she's finding her passion is forced and uncomfortable.

It doesn't matter. Nothing would have saved it. It's narrated by the Asian stoner dude who's a secret maths genius, and you can imagine how badly that plays: shamelessly for laughs, laughs which never come manifest. The token black guy is a basketball star whom the script treats as ridiculously asexual. It's embarrassing: in the end, the white kids pair off, while the Asian and the black guy don't even enter into the game, although it's obvious that Desmond (Darius Miles) is the character who has the chemistry with Christensen's smart girl. There's something grotesquely 1950s about it.

The other revelation is that Chris Evans doesn't play the straight man well. In his defense, his "comic" foil this time is Matthew Lillard as his older brother, again embarked upon his tired (you can tell even he's tired of it) "hyperactive party 'tard" routine, and that can't be easy to be around. And, to be fair, Cellular came out this same year, in which Evans does very well as straight man in his scenes opposite his scuz-buddy (Eric Christian Olsen), so it may well be a matter of script quality. And, come to think of it, direction, as well: in Cellular, Evans is allowed to be quicker on the draw, which he seems to enjoy, whereas Perfect Score is edited with long reaction shots before and after lines, which does nothing but protract the stupid thing.

If there's a reason to watch it, I can't think of what it is.

London: (2005. dir: Hunter Richards) This guy Richards raided the set of Cellular (Evans, Biel, Statham) and wound up with a much better cast than he deserved for what seems to be a very personal indie projet-du-coeur about the agony of being rich and gorgeous and just wanting to be loved on your own terms, goddamnit, and I'm going to stand in this bathroom doing cocaine until she loves me for the reasons I want her to.

The fact that Richards got Statham, with his super-virile presence, to play the impotent guy was an enormous coup, and Evans and Biel do everything they can, he playing an asshole who just can't quite stop himself being an asshole, she playing a homely gal, -- just kidding!-- the embodiment of All Which Men Desire, and they BOTH JUST WANT TO BE LOVED ON THEIR OWN TERMS, IS THAT SO MUCH TO ASK? Like I say, both actors do what they can.

We spend most of the movie in a luxury bathroom about the size of a Tokyo apartment, half mirrors and half balustrade overlooking the city, doing coke off a Van Gogh casually pulled down off the wall. Mostly the Evans character is avoiding having to confront the woman he obsesses over and wants to dominate (calling his yearning by the name of "love"), the woman who is leaving him for a guy with a 10-1/2 inch cock (seriously, it seems that if the guy had a smaller dick, the loss wouldn't be so traumatic. But this is True Love, mind you).

Sometimes the conversating is more interesting than others. Sometimes we're stuck in an infernal round of flashbacks in which fucking, fighting, and whining are an endless ring in some Sartrean hell.


Puncture: (2011. dir: Adam and Mark Kassen) This is the bleakest lawyer movie you will ever see. It's like the Verdict only without those brilliant, icy spaces, and, significantly, without that miracle pitch in the ninth, the one that sends James Mason's unflappably smooth and malevolent lawyer into a much-cheered moment of stammering. This is Erin Brockovich with six-pack abs instead of cleavage, but instead of a plucky, foul-mouthed gal who won't give up, this guy is a drug-addicted sleazebag who lives his life on the edge of surrender, snorting coke in public johns and getting handjobs from his students. He obsesses over this one unwinnable case for the wrong reasons, possibly because he knows his body is about to give out and this is his last chance for salvation, and in the end, it is suggested, gets himself Silkwooded instead: suicide by waving a red flag in front of Big Business. The trouble is that his last, noble speech is one we don't really buy, because by this time we're familiar with this guy's brand of bullshit, and it seems ridiculous that anyone in power would go to the trouble to take him out because he's such a powerless, sadsack freakshow. After his death, almost as an afterthought, his ex-partner and the client, remotivated by his untimely demise, find their moment of victory, but the way it's presented seems hollow and a little glib.

Evans is good. He has that Paul Newman thing going, that rare, extreme level of likability that allows him to play an utter douchebag and get away with it. After watching this and London side by side, though, I never want to have to watch Chris Evans snort cocaine, ever again. Maybe a nice pot-smoking surfer next time, just to mix it up a little, OK?

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

a bad guy amongst the bad guys: chris evans in the iceman

(2013. dir: Ariel Vroman) A thing few actors can do successfully is to alter their personal rhythm for the length of an entire film. Yeah, you can make a point of talking faster, jumping harder on your cues, or, like Jeremy Irons in Reversal of Fortune, you can slow yourself down just a notch, give yourself a solider center to work from, sort of jerryrig a strength of gravitas. Most of the time quickening your natural pace comes across as caricature (not always a bad thing: think Brad Pitt in Twelve Monkeys). At its most effective, you get the caged explosions of Ralph Fiennes in In Bruges, or, even better, Ben Kingsley in Sexy Beast, this last surely one of the most terrifying performances ever. Slowing one's energy, on the other hand, results in a confined performance (which worked towards Irons' Oscar, that stoical mien allowing the creepiness of his possible guilt to blindside us at the end).

The fact is, you know you're going to get a different tempo if you cast Christopher Walken, Samuel L. Jackson, Al Pacino or Michael Caine. You can pretty much count on it, and you have to, because complementary tempos make for great exchanges. Butch is quick, Sundance is steady. You cast the rapidfire Pesci opposite the steady DeNiro, and sparks fly when Robert Downey's staccato Tony Stark kicks up a bromance with Mark Ruffalo's cautious Bruce Banner. In Bruges works because Colin Farrell is fast and furious, Brendan Gleeson is slow and steady; McDonagh's follow-up 7 Psychopaths suffers because he's cast Farrell in the steady role, playing off the unstoppered stream-of-consciousness that comprises Sam Rockwell's hit-and-miss wit, and Farrell feels hogtied. You can tell it because when he finally gets to play off the (slow and steady) Walken, he brightens up, comes to life. (And, speaking of Walken, remember the classic "Sicilian" scene in True Romance, the one where Dennis Hopper talks his ear off? It works because Hopper is quick, Walken is steady.)

Even when an actor "disguises" himself well, he's not usually doing it through tempo-change. Daniel Day-Lewis is our current shape-shifter laureate, and yet the quickest he ever gets is, what? the punk kid in My Beautiful Laundrette? (I haven't seen a lot of his work, so help me out here.) My point is that even our best actors, even our Streeps, may speak more quickly or slowly, but the natural energy-tempos tend to stay the same.

Now I want you to look at Chris Evans. As Captain America and in other roles (Cellular, Push, Street Kings) he's slow and steady, but he always has a tendency to jump right on a cue. You come away thinking you have a clue into the man himself, that this is the way he presents himself in the world. Then you watch the Losers and the Iceman, and you get a whole different guy. He's quick, he's surefire, he can go forever without a pause, and, particularly as Mr. Freezy in the Iceman, his performance still seems thoughtful and intelligent. This is a smart guy; his mind just works so fast he never has to show you he's thinking about what he's going to say. If you're not looking for Evans in this movie, you won't recognize him. He's disguised himself, yeah, with moppy hair and '70s glasses, but he's also accelerated his tempo so successfully that just don't catch a glimpse of the good Captain, not a single one, and that's no easy accomplishment for a matinee idol of his stature and fame.

As far as the rest of the movie goes, it's Michael Shannon as a mob hitman. You know what to expect, right? Sure, he'll be great, he always is, but you know his coldness by now, his scariness, you think you don't need to see it because you can guess his moves, right? But not so. He's mesmerizing to watch. And I fully guarantee that in the last few minutes, his closing soliloquy, he'll blow you away. He's that good.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

chris evans when he plays a normal human

It didn't start out to be a Chris Evans thing. I actually started out watching movies with (the uncannily brilliant) Cillian Murphy, and that's how I got to Sunshine. It's the Danny Boyle sci-fi in which the sun is old and tired and mankind is trying to restart it with a nuke to its innards. It underwhelmed me the first time I saw it (not scriptwriter Alex Garland's fault, or the cast's, who are lovely; I think the blame rests entirely with Boyle), but I was fascinated, on returning to it, to find Captain America there in the crew. And not just playing any crew member, but the Shadow-Carrier: the macho flyboy who is determined to save the world even if he has to kill everyone onboard to do it. It interests me that the very quality of earnest guilelessness which he so effortlessly exudes and which makes him uniquely suited to play America's humblest superhero redoubles its strength here, in a role which any other actor would have given an inappropriately black-hatted hue. When crisis strikes, every action this pilot takes is thoughtfully aimed toward seeing the mission accomplished, the sun recharged, and the earth saved. Everyone, himself included, is expendable to reach that end. He's a good guy, a hero, and in the end he gives his life in a particularly difficult and unsung fashion to see it achieved. Somehow, miraculously, Evans never seems villainous, even when he's snarlingly alpha-maling at Murphy's physicist-protag or coldly condemning a shipmate to death by execution. It's a stunningly successful performance in a sadly unsatisfying film.

Evans' career so far is crazily skewed toward the superheroic. Besides the good Captain, he's twice been Johnny Storm, 2009's Push concerns a motley group of mutant-kids with superpowers, and Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World has its own superhero thing going on. Even when he's not superheroing, he's plain heroing, as in Snowpiercer and the Losers, a movie with roots in the comic book world and dealing with an "A-Team" band of military hero types, sort of flawed (but just barely) demi-psuedo-superheroes. (In this one, Evans gets to be funny, and he really is; like Channing Tatum kind of funny-gorgeous that doesn't somehow seem fair to the rest of mankind.)

Of course, Evans looks like a superhero, probably more than any other actor. He is, in fact, so ridiculously handsome, with a body so exactly sculpted to reflect our modern conception of extreme masculine pulchritude, I wouldn't be all that surprised to find out that he didn't really exist at all, that he is just a complex CGI image created by some genius on a computer at Marvel to populate an annoying lacuna in the casting pool. It's his ingenuousness, though, that makes him the true rara avis, and although his talents are often belittled, the frank ease with which he communicates thought and feeling without drawing extra attention to himself is positively refreshing.

And every now and then he plays a normal human.

Cellular: (2004. dir: David R. Ellis) The worst parts of Cellular, an unabashed action B-film from late director/stuntman Ellis, are all in the first two minutes, when Jessica (Kim Basinger) walks her adorable little boy to the school bus. This is the treacly schmaltz setting up the impossibly edenic life (Jessica is a high school science teacher married to a realtor, yet they live in a house the size of Balmoral Castle, complete with swimming pool and serving staff) which is shattered in the third minute by the intrusion of brutal kidnappers. Basinger is terrible in this segment, but she makes up for it in the following couple of hours, excelling at the "terrified-but-strong" mode which propels her through the rest of the film.

The movie is sprung up from a clever notion: trapped in an attic, she manages to repair a broken phone and call a random number, reaching a self-involved but lovable surf-boy (Evans) whom she convinces to run all over town trying to save her family, the trick being that if the call is cut off, it cannot be repeated and he will never find her. Without perfect casting and decent storytelling, it might easily have been too clever for its own good, but the casting really is that perfect, including William H. Macy as the sad-sack cop who ultimately saves the day.

Evans is the pretty-boy loafing around after his ex-girlfriend (Jessica Biel, a small role, and not her best work) on Santa Monica Pier, and he plays it without a stumble, his charm constant without ever tumbling over the edge into the cloying or obnoxious. Complications follow, one upon another, with an easy sweep, carrying us along over the rough patches without too much turbulence. We believe him as the low-key party-boy who is trying to trick his ex into taking him back by faking a social conscience, and we don't mind it because he's obviously doing it out of genuine regard for her. Then we watch him grow up, discover that he does have a conscience, a strong sense of empathy, and a stubborn willingness to make sacrifices for the good of another, even a stranger, and we believe that, too. In short, the story is contrived, but it's well pulled off, and that's all we care about in the end.

One of my favorite things about it is Jason Statham as the chief heavy. Watching this man fight is an unexpected pleasure. His movements are graceful and clean, and evoke that peaceful, exalted feeling you get when you're watching a great dancer, or any true master of his craft at work.

Monday, September 7, 2015

robert patrick double feature: a texas funeral and jayne mansfield's car

a Texas Funeral: (1999. dir: W. Blake Herron) These two movies are extraordinarily well-suited to viewing as a double-feature. They're both family gatherings instigated by the death of a figure of near-legendary proportions, and they're both character-studies leavened, with varying levels of success, with a strong dose of whimsy.

Martin Sheen is Sparta Whit, a larger-than-life, camel-raising, land-rich Texan whose death affects all the life-sized people comprising the next generations of his family. Joanne Whalley is his institutionalized, nymphomaniac daughter, Chris Noth his inscrutable nephew, Olivia D'Abo his frightened niece-in-law. Grace Zabriskie is fantastic as his white-haired, sensuous wife, driven near-mad with lust for what is cagily referred to throughout as "the power of the male Whit ear."

No one has ever been better than Robert Patrick at playing the problematic "man's-man" father who doesn't understand his sensitive son. I've watched him create at least three different versions, and they're none of them carbon copies, all distinctly three-dimensional humans. Compare this one, Zach Whit, a good-hearted, straightforward man who is genuinely bemused by a son who begs for the life of an earthworm about to be used as bait, takes a vow of silence after being told to shut up, and runs away, terrified, when the hunting rifles come out, to the more stoical and wiser Jack Aarons in Bridge to Terabithia, and both of those to his brilliantly courageous, hard-edged Ray Cash in Walk the Line.

Jayne Mansfield's Car: (2012. dir: Billy Bob Thornton) The vibrant, life-loving matriarch of two families, one in Alabama, the other in England, has died and asked to be transported back to the States for burial, bringing the two disparate clans together for the first time. This is about fathers and sons and their ridiculously difficult relations. It's also about war, and how it affects men's opinions of themselves, of one another, and of the world they live in.

Thornton's two best virtues as a director are a fearlessness in taking his own time telling a story and a wonderful regard for those small strangenesses that make us all, even the most "normal" of us, eccentric and individual. His films are more interested in character than story. He takes the time to linger, for example, on a boy at the Jayne Mansfield exhibit, a boy with one line who will not figure again into the story, lets us watch him look at a crude sketch of Mansfield on the wall, then impulsively reach forward and give the picture a peck on the cheek.

This movie is filled with great moments. Here's one of my favorites: Patrick plays the stodgiest of the yank brothers, the only one who didn't see action in war-time. Embittered and driven by his exclusion from the enclave of war heroes around him, he has over-compensated with success in the peace-time world, while his damaged and disillusioned brothers can barely manage to live in it. As the tensions of the family gathering mount and that awful "Thanksgiving" brand of claustrophobia takes its hold, the one that comes of being trapped in a house with too many family members, your secrets and flaws known to all, the alcohol flows in attempt to allay the hideousness and pass the time. After a particularly vulnerable, difficult scene in which the British son (Ray Stevenson, wonderful) at last publicly confronts his father about denigrating his war service because he spent the bulk of it in a prison-camp, Patrick's suburban, middle-class wife breaks into a fit of giggles and suddenly kisses her husband passionately. Surprised, he responds, and they start making out drunkenly on the couch in front of the two older patriarchs. It is a wonderful, human moment, the like of which I've never seen anywhere else, and it may well have been the fuclrum upon which my Robert Patrick film festival first turned.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

new orleans on film

My Forbidden Past: (1951. dir: Robert Stevenson) New Orleans comes to life in lush and gorgeous black and white, back in the heady days of proud Creole families with skeletons jangling in the closets. You'd be hard pressed to find a more sensuous opening scene: Ava Gardner at her loveliest in slow close-up as she smiles up at Robert Mitchum and is drawn into his silent embrace. (The only one I can think of to beat it for opening-scene sensuousness is John Ford's the Long Voyage Home.) It's melodrama, and the plot bogs down by the end, but Melvyn Douglas is sufficiently roguish in his bad-guy charm to keep things interesting, and Gardner is a masterpiece of fire and ice as the woman scorned and on the lookout for payback. Mitchum doesn't have enough to do, but nobody plays the stalwart outsider better: in this case, a yankee boffin at Tulane.

It's possible that New Orleans never looked so beautiful (and that's saying something) as on All Soul's Eve when Gardner visits a City of the Dead to tryst with her ex and light a candle at the crypt of her scandalous grandmother.

Toys in the Attic: (1963. dir: George Roy Hill) I suppose it's the stuck-outside-of-time quality which makes New Orleans so irresistible in black & white. It invokes that same idea you get sometimes when you're there, if you can ever escape the teeming masses long enough, that if you close your eyes then open them very fast you might find yourself suddenly among ladies in crinoline and gentlemen in shirt-sleeves duelling beneath oak trees and plantation overseers driving wagons filled with bags of cotton to mill. Or that if you stand very still near a boneyard at night (everyone will tell you that going inside at night is utter folly and you'll end up never emerging) you might hear the voices of the city's old gods, still alive and practicing danger and mischief after all these centuries. (When I told my friend Sam I always imagined Venice would be a little like New Orleans, he considered it then said, "The difference is that Venice's gods are asleep.")

This is from a late Lillian Hellman play. As a young girl she lived in New Orleans, and in the time-honored tradition of American playwrights, -- O'Neill, Miller, Inge, ad nauseam,-- although societal influences come to bear, the truest, most stifling danger tends to rise up from the bosom of one's familial unit. To hear these folks tell it, the lucky few who escape its suffocation are so bent and twisted by the time they do it's a wonder that any decent living ever gets done at all.

The play, I'm guessing, sports a seven-character cast, and the movie is slightly opened up, but just a little. We get glimpses of the town: the Cafe du Monde, Jackson Square, the Cathedral, the Preservation Hall. The strip joints and sfumato-painted alleyways at night. Mostly we stay in the sprawling but somehow too-close, much-hated family mansion, probably situated somewhere in the Garden District, where Hellman lived. A pair of spinster sisters (Wendy Hiller and Geraldine Page, both spot-on fabulous) have shelved their own dreams to devote their lives and hard-earned savings to supporting their often absent, well-meaning but wastrel brother (Dean Martin, if not at his best, certainly near to it). When he returns with a kittenish bride (Yvette Mimieux) and a mysterious new fortune, jealousies and fear of change rise up into a mass of destructive force. Hellman is great at this kind of thing. To her credit, she brings the one sister's sublimated lust right out into the open where it can take its true, malevolent dragon-shape, whereas most playwrights would have let it seethe, unspoken, and politely hinted at but unaddressed.

The movie both suffers and triumphs from staying close to the original stage play: there are the first, slightly awkward expositionary scenes, well enough written and acted that we can swallow 'em and move on, but when Hellman gets cooking with fire, she's a fearsome thing to behold, and the build-up to the betrayal is stunning and although you want to look away, it's like a trainwreck coming, and you can't turn your head. There's also a lovely subplot with a rich woman (Gene Tierney, wonderfully underplaying) and her "nigra chauffeur" long-time lover (Frank Silvera).

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

eye see you: one more sorry dance between a cop and a serial killer

(2002. dir: Jim Gillespie) I've had it up to here with serial killers. Seriously, I'm so done with the whole genre that I haven't watched more than a single ep of "Hannibal", this although I feel a passion for Mads Mikkelsen akin to the heat of a thousand suns.

This particular bad hombre is a cop-killer. He drills into eyeballs and hangs his victims, sometimes in humiliating ways, sometimes just deadly. He drives FBI agent Jake Malloy (Sly Stallone) into breakdown and a suicide attempt, after which Malloy is conveniently transported to a concrete prison facility in Wyoming in the dead of winter with a roomful of other disturbed cops for some detox and rehabilitation. The facility is entirely cut off from the rest of society, at least in the dead of winter.

Don't get me wrong. This movie has a great cast. Polly Walker is the resident medic, Stephen Lang has cultivated a truly creepy look to pull off the red-herring role, Charles Dutton is the steadfast buddy, Robert Prosky gets a decent turn around the dance-floor, and Sean Patrick Flanery has a nice moment as a broken young cop. Jeffrey Wright is, as always, amazing. In an era of movie stars winning Oscars for not doing very much at all (I'm looking at you, aging Jack Nicholson, Helen Hunt, Christoph Waltz on your second trip to the podium), Jeffrey Wright transforms himself for every role. Could this damaged punk be the same cat who turned himself into Muddy Waters in front of my eyes in Cadillac Records, and pulled off the only truly effective moment in W., when an increasingly anxious Colin Powell asks a War Room full of asswipes and clowns what the Iraq exit strategy will be and is met with creepy silence and knowing smiles?

So I'm not saying don't watch it. It's an Old Dark House film: you've got a group of humans, most of them pretty messed up, locked away from the world in a place with no escape and a killer in their midst. The cast is full enough of stars and good character actors that the killer could be anyone. The trouble with using a snowstorm as your barrier is that climactic (or, in this case, semi-climactic) scenes shot in blizzards are unsatisfying. It's hard to tell what's going on, everyone looks like the same person in a shapeless, furry parka, and nobody can move very fast or effectively.

And Robert Patrick is great! He gets to play the hardened tough guy (the tough guy! in a Stallone film!), but then we get to watch him melt around the edges until by the end he's weeping like a child, and Patrick is the rare actor who can pull that transition off beautifully.

I give it two stars. The stars are for the acting. The story is pretty hackneyed, and, I swear to God, somebody needs to think of something to write about other than a damn serial killer playing cat-and-mouse with his investigating detective, or I'm going to lose it and start breaking some screenwriter kneecaps. Y'all stand warned.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

valentino: shiny, but no insight

(1977. dir: Ken Russell) You know what you're getting into with a Ken Russell biopic: not literal truth, but stabs, some of them quite playful, at metaphorical truths. Nureyev is, in retrospect, a brilliant choice to embody Valentino. Both men are primarily dancers, own powerfully androgynous sex appeals, and are palpably "other", sporting the thick accents of those just off the boat from distant lands.

Although it is one of Russell's tamer ventures, without the extreme oddity of, say, Lisztomania or Gothic, it bears the Russell hallmarks. The grotesquerie of the jail scene brings to mind Tchaikovsky's wedding night on the train in the Music Lovers, or Sister Jeanne's twisted visions from the Devils. The pace is good, and the costumes and sets are suitably gorgeous and baroque. What we don't come away with, and what we want most from a biopic, is psychological insight. Even just one "oh, I get it" moment would suffice, and Russell never gives us one.

A framing device involving the various women in his life coming forward, one by one, at his funeral to tell a piece of his story, is dangerously pat but Russell has the skills to pull it off, just barely. All the women come off badly, not only Nazimova (Leslie Caron) played up to full tilt diva, but Rambova (Michelle Phillips) portrayed as a talentless, heartless user, a representation which is unfair at least inasmuchas she did obviously own enormous talent in her own right. Even June Mathis (Felicity Kendal), the powerfully successful screenwriter who launched Valentino's career and stood staunchly by him until the end (and beyond, burying him in her own family vault and following him within a year), becomes, within Russell's purview, ineffective and merely lovesick.

This got horribly panned when it came out, but it's a great wonder that any of Russell's strange, visionary films ever avoided that fate. This is not his best, but certainly not his worst. One of the problems is the controversy over Valentino himself, which I think still rumbles: he is now accepted as gay, but how gay was his lifestyle? He obviously genuinely loved women. Did he have a sex life with women? Was it successful? Did he and Rambova enjoy a thriving dom/sub relationship, as suggested by the "slave bracelet"? How much sex did he have with men? What was his attitude towards it? I think that Valentino himself would approve of Russell's perspective, focusing on the women in his life, because that's where he himself placed the emphasis. If you'd asked him what the lynchpin of his story was, he'd have been the first to say it was Rambova.