Perrier’s Bounty

Is he doomed to remain the dude he always was?

We’ve reached an era of uniform head-nodding when it comes to European “gangster underworld” films, in large part due to Guy Ritchie’s success in the genre (Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, Snatch, RocknRolla, etc).  His success has also spoiled this genre a little bit – “This is like one of those Guy Ritchie films.”  You will only hear that phrase uttered by Americans, for in reality, these types of films have been going on forever, albeit not receiving theatrical release in the oh-so-spoiled States, where we only skim the very top of the foreign film bucket.

Perrier’s Bounty is a Dublin (that’s in Ireland!) underworld film written by Mark O’Rowe, who mostly works in stageplay, but who is also responsible for the excellent Irish film Intermission from 2003.  PB stars Cillian Murphy as Michael, a young, near-destitute loner in modern-day Dublin, who owes a good deal of money to infamous gangster Darren Perrier (Brendan Gleeson).  His downstairs neighbor and secret crush Brenda (Jodie Whittaker) becomes involved when she guns down one of Perrier’s gangsters in a confused combination of concern for Michael and manic distress at being dumped by her loser boyfriend.  The duo make a run for it, along with Michael’s father Jim (Jim Broadbent) who appears out of nowhere, claiming that he received a visit from the Reaper, who told Jim he would die the next time he fell asleep.  The film also features appearances from Liam Cunningham as “The Mutt,” a man said to help those in debt; and Gabriel Byrne as the mysterious, deep-voiced narrator, whose identity you can probably guess just from what I’ve written so far.  If not, you’ll find out in the final ten seconds of the film, so don’t fret.

PB is a mixture of crime thriller, dark-ish comedy, and formula romance.  Where it stands out from other “like Guy Ritchie but…” films is its heart.  Is it fully expected that Michael and Brenda will be a couple in the end?  Of course.  But is it still immensely satisfying if they do?  Absolutely.  Murphy, Gleeson and Broadbent get to use their real accents, which makes you appreciate the work that goes into their phony American and British ones even more.  Whittaker, known for her appearances in St. Trinian’s and Venus, is the only woman among the principal cast, and serves mainly as the romantic interest for Michael and the fuel for some of his decisions (a problem for women in a great many films lately; see Christopher Nolan’s lady issues), but even so, she plays the role with convincing passion.  Broadbent, as usual, is lovable and hilarious, and the inclusion of Byrne, whose voice looms over the film like a cloud of vultures, is spirited.

The twists, while involving, are relatively easy to see coming, but the characters move through them convincingly enough.  There’s a near-progressive moment when one of Perrier’s lead henchmen reveals his homosexuality, but this detail is used mostly for humor (Gleeson: “Love is love, no matter how queer”).

All in all, the mixed drink of comedy, thriller, “like Guy Ritchie but…” and cute romance (in Ireland!) is a delicious one.  The father-son conflict is well-performed (and occasionally quite touching), and the quirky characters all have their place.  Just note that if you needed the Pikey subtitles for Brad Pitt in Snatch, you’ll be reading a hell of a lot during Perrier’s Bounty.

Perrier’s Bounty (2009); written by Mark O’Rowe; directed by Ian Fitzgibbon; starring Cillian Murphy, Jodie Whittaker, Jim Broadbent and Brendan Gleeson.

The Green Hornet

It’s better than herpes

The original Green Hornet TV series was notable because unlike the campy Batman show, it was played straight.  It was the story of two silly urban heroes in masks, but this was serious business to them.

The Rogen/Goldberg version isn’t quite as B&W as far as its narrative lens.  The film opens with Britt Reid (Seth Rogen) being scolded by his totalitarian father (Tom Wilkinson) in one of those “every child has a hundred moments like this, but for this character it was so profound that it will stick with him for the rest of his life and, more importantly, catalyze the movement of this entire film” scenes.  Ten years later, Reid decides, upon his father’s death, that he will abandon his frivolous lifestyle and team up with his father’s former mechanic, Kato (Jay Chou, in the role that popularized Bruce Lee with American audiences), and together they will fight crime by pretending to be “bad guys.”  The duo make this decision after desecrating a statue of Reid’s deceased dad.  This setup switches the mood of the film about three times: the beginning is funny (ish) and lighthearted, with Rogen popping one-liners and goofing off.  Then Wilkinson abruptly dies and we hear Johnny Cash’s “I Hung My Head,” one of the saddest songs ever performed, as a hundred somber folks attend the funeral.  Immediately after this, Rogen and Chou destroy the statue, resting its head (the head of Reid’s father) on the couch next to them as they drink beer and babble.  In any other film, this could be a type of dark humor, but here, it’s mean-spirited and confusing.

The film picks up, however.  Insecure villain Chudnofsky (Christoph Waltz) assumes control of all crime in Los Angeles by killing James Franco and walking slowly away from the explosion without flinching.  As the Green Hornet and Kato gain infamy in the city, Chudnofsky becomes jealous, and we have an urban war on our hands.  Cameron Diaz also shows up as Lenore Case, Reid’s new secretary, who wisely avoids giving her affections to either of the buffoonish leads.

Refreshingly, the film’s twists are inventive and sometimes genuinely surprising (either that or I wasn’t able to pay close enough attention due to the fact that a pair of cumbersome 3D glasses were stuck to my face).  The comic-book-style revelation scenes near the end are very well put-together, and the pair of Rogen and Chou are genuinely likable (a necessity, since the lion’s share of the film’s dialogue belongs to them).  The role of Chudnofsky is a “cool-down” role for Waltz, who plays a stereotypical archvillain and appears to be having some genuine fun with it.  It’s his first role since his wonderful performance in Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, and he’ll follow it with performances in the potentially-great Water For Elephants and the umpteenth remake of The Three Musketeers.  Diaz appears only to keep the film from being a “brodeo” (to use the parlance of our times).  It is due noting, however, that the film has a certain homo-eroticism to it, usually initiated by Reid.  He and Kato form a best-buds relationship, but some of the humor has further layers.  Reid asks Kato to “take [his] hand and come on this adventure,” and sheepishly claims to a roomful of journalists that he and Kato are “just platonic” after blurting out “Kato is my man.”  They bicker like a couple, have the classic Movie Break-Up and Reunion, and playfully slap each other on the privates once or twice.  Plus, neither of them end up with a woman in the end.

As a whole, the film delivers what it promises.  You’ll be disappointed if you go in expecting anything but silly action, campy humor, and death treated like a casual routine.  I wonder, though, with Chou’s prominent billing, large blocks of dialogue spoken with a genuine accent, martial-arts moves that sometimes resemble Wing Chun (including an explosive-yet-incorrectly-delivered “No Inch Punch”), and a clever Bruce Lee reference hidden in Kato’s sketchbook… did the Chinese once again rename it The Kato Show?

The Green Hornet (2011); written by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg; directed by Michel Gondry; starring Seth Rogen, Jay Chou, Christoph Waltz and Cameron Diaz.

The King’s Speech

Use all your well-learned politesse

I figured it out.  When trudging through the History half of my double-minor, what I really needed from my alma-mater’s History department was Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush in place of the aging Vietnam-o-philes paid to drawl over the podium until my ears went numb.

The King’s Speech, Tom Hooper’s heart-wrenching film concerning the life of King George VI at the cusp of World War II, flips the term “historical drama” on its proverbial head.  Not only is the drama between three or four core characters more engaging than any silly, battle-crammed historical epic, but the narrative also manages better accuracy with historical events.

The story centers around The Prince Albert, Duke of York (who later, of course, becomes King George VI), played by Colin Firth.  After his unfortunate stammer causes disaster at Wembley Stadium’s Empire Exhibition, Albert (“Bertie”) seeks help, at the behest of his wife Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter), the beloved Queen mother, from speech therapist and failed Australian actor Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush).  The narrative focuses on the relationship between these two men as the Duke struggles with confidence, knowing deep down that he will soon have to take over the responsibilities of the throne from his older brother David (Guy Pearce), who cares more about marrying American socialite Wallis Simpson (Eve Best) than leading the British Empire.  The inspired supporting cast also includes Michael Gambon as King George V and Timothy Spall as Winston Churchill, who skirts caricature at times, but it’s a bit hard not to with Britain’s hammiest Prime Minister.

Despite the tension in the world at the time, Hooper wisely chose not to cast an actor as Adolf Hitler, while still employing some focus on him.  In the rare instances Hitler is shown, he appears as himself in actual footage from the thirties and forties.  The performances of the actors themselves are unrestrained, well-researched and certainly Oscar-grade: our sympathies shift between Firth and Rush, though never far away from either of them.  The Duke desperately needs his stammer to disappear, but he’s still resistant to befriend a member of the common folk.  Carter, who plays the elder Elizabeth, proves she can do more than act weird, and her character is racked with sympathy.  Logue aspires to be an actor, and despite his age still attends small auditions for major roles in productions of Shakespeare.  Pay close attention during the final shots of the film and try to imagine what Logue is really thinking.

The cinematography also delivers the occasional surprise.  Instead of epic (there’s that word again), majestic shots, Hooper constricts us into narrow hallways and oblong rooms.  Heroic closeups of Albert and Elizabeth pop up here and there, but Albert’s face always reflects familiarity with these narrow hallways, as if he embodies the very words attempting to escape his throat.  His long walks through the halls of the castle and along the sprawling streets of Britain mirror the nation’s march toward war – a war Albert himself will have to declare personally in the titular speech.  The big scene itself is handled adeptly by Hooper, wisely staying with Firth and Rush, briefly allowing us to leave the room to see the reactions of others, but even when we leave the room, the tension does not cease.

Historically, the film takes minor liberties with Winston Churchill and actually waters down Edward (omitting the fact that he was probably a Nazi sympathizer and, along with Wallis, was acquainted with Adolf Hitler).  As Roger Ebert states, however, “This film finds a more interesting story about better people.”  Albert and Elizabeth were the parents of Queen Elizabeth II, and have for some reason not been given as much attention as the universally antagonistic pair of Edward and Wallis.  I suppose it’s the same controversial flair that got that Sid and Nancy film made.

The King’s Speech (2010); written by David Seidler; directed by Tom Hooper; starring Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush, Helena Bonham Carter, and Michael Gambon

Italian For Beginners

Is it false advertising if the legs on the poster don’t appear in the film?

I remember somewhat fondly the first day of my basic Italian class in college.  “Why Italian?” the professor, a man by the name of Fernando Mallozzi, asked every student one by one.  When we had timidly related our reasons, some genuine and some clearly made up on the spot, he asked if we had any questions for him.  After a long silence, a student in the back called out, “Does anyone call you ‘Nando?”

Italian For Beginners is a Danish film featuring six principle characters, lonely single people seeking some sort of figurative freedom, triggering a sequence of life-altering(ish) events by taking a basic Italian language course.  The “beginners” in my college Italian class made this film’s “beginners” look like tenured professionals.

Lone Sherfig’s light-hearted(ish) romance/slice-o’-life film is part of the defunct Danish “Dogme 95” movement, which involves such avant-garde techniques as natural lighting, no music, and hand-held cameras.  Film critic and mudslinger Armond White refers to this movement as “insignificant,” and perhaps, yes, forcing a checklist of unbreakable rules on a film director is a bit like telling a fiction writer he can’t use conjunctions, but surely this movement did something for the art of film-making during its five year run – namely, showing that it’s possible to make a watchable, quality piece of art on a very low budget.

The film itself features an eclectic cast of immediately likable characters, including Andreas (Anders W. Berthelsen), a pastor learning the ropes of his job while dealing with the loss of his wife; Olympia (Anette Støvelbæk), a baker’s apprentice rendered hopelessly accident-prone as a result of prenatal alcohol damage; Jørgen Mortensen (Peter Gantzler), an aging hotel employee and single everyman; Karen (Ann Eleonora Jørgensen), a hairdresser caring for her dying mother; Hal-Finn (Lars Kaalund), a callous restaurant manager who can’t seem to hold a job due to his temper; and Giulia (Sara Indrio Jensen), an Italian waitress who does not speak the native language (Danish).

Conflicts are abound as soon as the film starts, which is a good move in a film that doesn’t have much to look at or listen to aside from people and dialogue (you’re not getting CG and flashy setpieces from Sherfig).  Mortensen is in love with a woman ten years younger than he is, who does not speak his language, and he is also tasked with firing his best friend.  Olympia is friendless and cannot deal with the pressures of the bakery (why she is the only employee and the baker is never seen is never touched upon).  Karen’s situation with her mother interferes with her life to the point that she must make a decision that would make D.H. Lawrence proud (Sons and Lovers. Read it).  Hal-Finn loses his job and has only one friend, who barely tolerates him, though his biggest immediate challenge seems to be getting a haircut, as he tries unsuccessfully on three separate occasions to have Karen give him a clip.

Through one thing and another, the Italian class brings these people together, and through charming (if incredibly convenient) twists and turns, gives them all, in a way, what they’re looking for.  The characters are a well-rounded bunch who are fun to spend time with.  Despite the constraining principles of Dogme 95, the film itself delivers a satisfying and accessible story to those not accustomed to foreign films (as well as those who are).

Dogme 95 sought to “purify” film, but only succeeded as far as Johnny Ramone’s dress code “purified” music.  Perhaps if we are going to purify an art form, in this case film, I’d like to throw my thoughts on the table: instead of constraining the artist, let’s just think about the “why” behind the action.  I can think of a few principles off the bat: 1.  Don’t use CG  A)  to portray an entire set; B) to portray human action (yes, the only living things that should be computer-generated are things that don’t actually exist); C) if you imagine an audience reacting to your CG the same way you reacted when you first saw porn.  2.  Hmm… is there anything besides CG, endless money hoses, lack of creativity and general greed ruining films today?  Oh yes: 3D.  An article for another time.

Italian For Beginners (2000); written and directed by Lone Sherfig; starring Peter Gantzler, Lars Kaalund, and Ann Eleonora Jørgensen.

Knight And Day

I’m the guy

I decided Tom Cruise and I were “okay” again after Mission: Impossible III, which shouted over its proverbial shoulder to acknowledge the true flair of the franchise while simultaneously letting Tom Cruise showcase his talents as an actor.  No matter your level of fright at his Scientology exploits, you cannot deny Cruise’s lasting appeal, natural dramatic prowess, and general likability in films.  When Valkyrie came along, despite its stellar cast and honest ambition, I wasn’t sure.  Tom Cruise as Claus von Stauffenberg?  Another Hitler thing?  Cruise has surely crossed a threshold across which we can never follow if this sort of film will be his norm from now on.  I’d rather spend time with Daniel Kaffee any day.

With Knight And Day, Cruise is allowed to be comfortable again.  Part romantic comedy, part actioner, part espionage thriller, there’s plenty of room to play around in James Mangold’s world.  Cruise stars as Roy Miller, a rogue CIA agent conveniently skilled in every situation that presents itself to him during his screen time, and Cameron Diaz appears alongside him as June Havens, an innocent car restorer who becomes involved in Miller’s absurd mission.

At the outset, the film presents itself as a rom-com and promises fun, starting with your run-of-the-mill Meet Cute and some flirty banter.  Early scenes involving Cruise and Diaz in a diner and on an airplane showcase the charm of the two leads.  Soon, however, “bad guys” attack.  Nearly every subsequent scene follows the same formula: charming build-up, satisfying wit, BOOM!  BANG!  RUN!  Cruise calmly kills off legions of armed villains under increasingly preposterous circumstances as Diaz screams, whines, looks good, and occasionally pops off a clever line.

It is, perhaps, the film’s nihilism and predictability that make it all the more charming.  From the first fight scene, during which Cruise kills the entire crew and passenger roster of an in-flight plane, the tongue-in-cheek tendencies of the film are evident.  The situation and its presentation skirt satire, and if not for Cruise and Diaz’s straight-faced performances, it might be full-blown farce.  The action scenes, as ridiculous as they are, seem fine in this world because Cruise remains the down-to-earth (if hopelessly brazen) eye around which the film’s storm spins.

Knight And Day falters when Cruise briefly goes away and we are asked to believe the convoluted espionage-thriller backstory the film previously  (and wisely) shoved aside by having Cruise sum things up with “Maybe it’s better if you don’t know” and “Those were bad guys; these are worse guys.”  Suddenly, however, we are expected to buy into an evil Hispanic maniac’s plot to capture a powerful MacGuffin (The Maltese Falcon…er, a strange battery, that is) which Miller happens to have.  The Lull Section of the film is your typical break in the adorable rom-com couple’s relationship while everything else in the story gets settled, but in this case, with long drags of silence and confusing “figure stuff out” scenes, it becomes a bore.  On the bright side, the film has a nice supporting cast, including Paul Dano and Viola Davis.  Maggie Grace even pops up a few times as June’s little sister, April.

Not clear about what it wants to be, Knight And Day lets the viewer decide what to take away from it.  If anything, Hollywood has finally gotten its fourth-wall-obliterating, self-conscious exercise in acknowledging its own conventions out of its system.  The formulaic, CG-drenched action pieces distract from the romance, and the cute, well-played romance scenes distract from the action.  In some ways, it’s two films in one, but in the end, even if Roy Miller is crazy, as many of the film’s characters claim, even if he believes he’s superman or superagent or even that humanity was born from ancient space volcanoes, you have to admit: he makes it work, and you want to watch him.

Knight And Day (2010); written by Patrick O’Neill; directed by James Mangold; starring Tom Cruise, Cameron Diaz and Paul Dano.

Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog

A sequel would be nice, of course

I confess to never having been extremely interested in Joss Whedon’s work (and it’s not only because of having a girlfriend back in high school who was obsessed with Buffy), but when the love of the stage musical is passionately translated to screen (and in an original production, no less), I’ll give any director a chance.

Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog is a 42-minute film, originally posted in three installments on the internet, which brings the concept of the musical to the screen in a way not done since The Rocky Horror Picture Show (the biggest difference being this is not an adaptation of a stage work).  Whedon’s film features Neil Patrick Harris as Billy, also known as Doctor Horrible, a weaselly-but-sweet science genius who wants to become a supervillain, hoping to stake his claim by joining the Evil League of Evil, led by the mysterious Bad Horse.  He seems to be on the right track until his laundromat crush, Penny (Felicia Day) falls for his arch-nemesis, the brawny and foppish Captain Hammer (Nathan Fillion), who serves as the city’s superhero but seems to frequently cause more harm than good.  Horrible becomes distracted, and due to his failures, is told the only way he can prove he is evil enough to join the league is by carrying out an assassination.

The film is told at the outset through video-blog entries by Horrible himself, during which he reads and answers emails from his fans.  The songs, which occupy a refreshing majority of the film’s storytelling time, are well-written and full of heart, not to mention performed with staggering passion and talent by the cast.  Harris’ singing ability is no secret, and Felicia Day plays Penny as a stout-hearted and tragic woman who sings away her pain.  Fillion’s vocals are good enough, though his role doesn’t require Hammer to be an amazing singer.  Bad Horse, who turns out to be an actual horse, makes his presence known through singing cowboys, who may or may not actually exist, conveying the will of the League’s leader to Horrible via song.  My favorite pieces from the film include “My Eyes,” “Bad Horse Chorus,” “A Man’s Gotta Do” and “Brand New Day.”

The short run time causes the film’s story to be terse and tightly-told, giving us time to get to know Horrible, our lovable anti-hero, and root him all the way to the end.  This is the type of work Whedon should stick to – Buffy was his TV legacy, and the upcoming Avengers is a great opportunity to make some money and become a Hollywood name, but Dr. Horrible‘s heart is undeniable, and the sheer amount of care by the cast and crew is supremely evident.

More than a nerd gem, Dr. Horrible is independent visual (and musical) art in its true form.  The DVD version even includes applications to the League sent in by fans of the film.  This is when you know you’re onto something special.

Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog (2008); written by Joss Whedon, Jed Whedon, Zack Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen; directed by Joss Whedon; starring Neil Patrick Harris, Felicia Day and Nathan Fillion.

Primer

What was that about protein?

When someone tells you, “It’s a movie about time travel,” certain implications and expectations are inherent.  A time machine!  Unbelievable science!  White-coated geeks!  Inevitable betrayal!  Perplexing paradoxes!

Shane Carruth’s $7000 cult sci-fi film is an exercise in subtlety.  All of the above can be checked off the list, but on a tiny budget, one has to come up with alternative ways of doing things.  At the outset of Primer, we are introduced to Aaron (Shane Carruth) and Abe (David Sullivan), two supposed geniuses sharing their workspace – the garage owned by Aaron and his wife – with a few other guys.  Throughout the film, the two are attired in plain white dress shirts and ties, the color of which changes depending on the day.  In a film determined to confuse its audience, you might think (as I did) the color of the ties would serve as a trail of breadcrumbs concerning what’s what in the timeline, but no such luck.

Carruth is a former engineer with a degree in mathematics, and as such, chooses not to water down the scientific jargon for the audience.  This is a bit of a writing no-no, and as Carruth certainly knows his film’s main audience will not be scientists, this tactic comes off not only as arrogant, but it tends to bore.  All we really need to know is that Aaron and Abe are attempting to build a machine that will reduce the weight of any object, and in doing so accidentally stumble upon time travel.  When they go back a day or so, their “double” from the past still exists, and they must avoid the double at all costs (though why is never explained).  At first, the pair mess with stocks and find ways to make money – things that would immediately come to mind for most normal middle-class folks given this opportunity – but with one thing and another, the friendship and time travel capabilities are abused.  Placed sparsely throughout the film is a phone conversation involving one or more of the “Aarons.”  Through their meddling, Abe and Aaron change nearly every aspect of their lives and are left with several complex problems.

As is tradition in documentary-style films (Bully, The Puffy Chair, SLICES, and so on) the performances are subtle and the conversations self-contained, as though the characters do not know (nor care) that they are being filmed.  Despite some sloppy editing and confusing, anti-climactic cuts after greatly suspenseful scenes, the film for the most part holds together, though it warrants an “if you’re into this sort of thing” label.  Do not go into this film expecting to be able to piece the puzzle together on a first viewing.

Carruth’s depiction of scientific discovery – by accident in an unglamorous location – is one of the more refreshing aspects of the film.  Although in retrospect, the sequence of events is not completely unclear, Carruth’s piecemeal storytelling and lack of concrete revelation are not likely to become a staple of the mainstream anytime soon.  That said, these folks seem to be happy right where they are.

Primer (2004); written and directed by Shane Carruth; starring Shane Carruth and David Sullivan