Monday, April 04, 2005

Coming out of the dumping ground: Be Cool, In Good Company, The Jacket, Hostage, Sin City

So, anyway, as my friend-I've-never-met Scott Weinberg says, 2005 has been a dire year for movies, at least so far. At least out of Hollywood; I'm not going to complain too hard about getting the likes of Steamboy, Aliens of the Deep, The Animation Show 2005, and Witnesses. But, man, if I still lived in Portland Maine and pretty much only had mianstream Hollywood to watch, I'd be either looking for a new hobby or actually plowing through my DVD collection.

I'm not sure why the concept of the "dumping ground" persists in this day and age. There are two major ones, from the first of the year to mid-February (which, this year, was elongated to the end of March), and August/September. The thought has generally been that people just don't see that many movies during those time periods, but there's relatively recent evidence to show that people will come out if you give them something worthwhile: The Fugitive was a huge August hit. The Star Wars Special Editions actually had to be spaced out so that they wouldn't cannibalize each other. Titanic and the Midgets vs. Jewelry movies may have come out in December, but showed tremendous staying power. The lesson seemed to be that if you give the audience something they want to see, they'll respond, even if it's not a holiday weekend.

That would seem especially true this year, since the Oscar contentders expanding their releases really weren't going to be popular hits. Instead, the winter has been something of a cinematic dead zone. And now, it looks like we're about to shift gears like crazy, with Sin City announcing that movies are going to be good again... Just when I could use some time to watch baseball.

Be Cool

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 4 March 2005 at Loews Boston Common #2 (first-run)

"Be Cool" is a somewhat ironic name for this project, as it describes its hopes as much as its story. Get Shorty was the coolest everyone in its cast had been in recent memory, and Travolta is desperately trying to recapture that moment, to be as cool as he was ten years ago. He doesn't, not really, although a little of the cool around him does rub off. This is a reasonably entertaining movie in spite of Travolta.

What made Travolta's Chili Palmer cool in Get Shorty was his unflappability, but what made that movie and character great was that he wasn't just cool. Underneath that steely gaze was a guy who didn't derive much pleasure from being ruthless, but did love the movies. It seldom came all the way to the surface, but underneath, you could tell this guy was a total geek. And that's where the charm of the character came from: While Chili's cool makes him attractive, it's not nearly as endearing as being a total dork about something you love. Which leads us to the movie's big weakness: Chili doesn't love rock 'n roll the way he loves movies. He knows it, and can hold his own in that world, but he's going through the motions.

Read the rest at HBS.

In Good Company

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 7 March 2005 at Somerville Theater #2 (second-run)

I don't know for sure, but I suspect In Good Company was a story idea that writer/director Paul Weitz has spent a lot of time refining in his head. Often, when a story has a long gestation period, the writer gets close to his characters as if they were real people. Characters become more well-rounded, not because the writer has particularly set out to make them so, but because that writer feels that he or she has gotten to know them, and "finds" things that make even the antagonistic characters more human.

Maybe I'm wrong; maybe In Good Company didn't start out as a much more straightforward comedy about a guy who suddenly finds himself working for an idiot half his age and is put upon because of it. Maybe Weitz didn't find himself liking the younger man more as he wrote new drafts before finally selling it. Maybe the characters in the first draft of the screenplay looked very much like the ones in the final film. If so, that's even more impressive. For now, though, I suspect that this is a movie that started as one thing but eventually became another (which isn't easy, either - it's hard to let the initial idea go).


I can't say whether or not there's necessarily truth in this movie - I've made conscious efforts to avoid the sixty-hour-work-week/produce-now-or-be-laid-off environments whenever I've had to look for work, but it feels real, mostly because we like the characters. We like Dan's solid dependability, Carter's growing good intentions, and Alex's clean slate. We want Dan's life to get a little easier, and for Carter to be a little more empathetic. Small requests, in the grand scheme of things, but we've got enough invested in these guys that they're enough for a movie.

Read the rest at HBS (although their format made me break that last paragraph up. Grr).

The Jacket

* * (out of four)
Seen 10 March 2005 at Landmark Embassy Theaters #2 (first-run)

Science fiction looks easy. After all, you're not constrained by the limits of the known world, so you can pretty much do anything, right? Well, no. Contrary to what the folks who yell "it's called science fiction" whenever a logical inconsistency is pointed out seem to think, all the details have to fit tightly together for the story to really work. The Jacket wasn't much above average to begin with, but when it decides to abandon its set-up late in the game, it sells its audience out.

Not that The Jacket was going to qualify as hard science fiction anyway; its method of time travel defies logical explanation (apparently surviving a bullet to the brain combined with later sensory deprivation is able to cause physical manifestations in a future time period). But even "modern fantasy" or "magic realism" or whatever the critics are calling it this week needs some internal consistency. Even if you go with the "it's not the nuts and bolts that are important, but the characters and how they react to their situations" crowd, the filmmaker still has to sell those situations to the audience (and some of us in the audience like our nuts and bolts). And to take it to the next step, even if you believe that suspension of disbelief is the job of the audience as opposed to the filmmaker (and I'd argue it's the other way around), it's still asking a bit much to ask the audience to believe two completely contradictory things in rapid succession.

Read the rest at HBS.


* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 27 March 2005 at AMC Fenway #9 (first-run)

I'm getting old. That's the only way I can explain it. I have lived sufficiently long that when confronted by a movie like Hostage, I don't find the action much fun any more. I look at it and think putting kids in danger is kind of tacky. I just generally do and think all sorts of generally old-fartsy things.

As formula thrillers go, Hostage isn't bad at all, I guess. It's got a snazzy title sequence, slick production values, and a star in Bruce Willis who is more than capable of elevating standard material. It needs another star, though - there's no bad guy who seems worthy of pulling Willis's strings. Indeed, the next-biggest star (Kevin Pollack) spends most of the movie unconscious. It means that a thriller that should be a game of cat and mouse is short a small mammal, someone who seems like a legit threat to beat Willis's character, at least within a movie.

Read the rest on HBS.

Sin City

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 2 April 2005 at AMC Fenway #12 (first-run)

Fans of most works that are adapted to films tend to grumble about the liberties taken with the source material. Comic book fans are among the most vocal, and in many ways the most justified. When comic books are made into movies, it often seems as though the studios don't realize that comics actually have stories, but are just places sources of brightly-colored characters. It's not like comics are already a combination of plot, dialog, and visuals that should translate naturally to the film medium. Heck, one of the first steps in making an action-oriented movie is to create a set of storyboards that look an awful lot like a comic book. It's not uncommon to think that you'd get a better movie if you just skipped a few steps by going straight from the comics to the storyboard.

This appears to be the method used by Robert Rodriguez in directing Frank Miller's Sin City. There's no screenplay credit, and during my last visit to my local comic shop, the staff and customers were pulling out the new collected editions and pointing out panels that corresponded exactly to shots in the trailer and movie. It's almost certainly the most faithful adaptations of a comic book ever.

Read the rest on HBS.

Next up: Documentaries

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