Monday, November 02, 2009

This Week In Tickets: 26 October 2009 to 1 November 2009

If not for the World Series, I'd probably be getting my DVR cleaned up and be making a dent in the metaphorical pile of unwatched screeners/DVDs/BDs hanging around my apartment. Actually, the pile's not metaphorical any more; there's a couple actual piles of things I mean to watch as soon as possible on my coffee table. And it probably wouldn't be a big dent - more of a ding. But I expect to start making it toward the end of the week.

Of course, maybe then there will be more good movies coming out. Right now, I'm really not excited about a whole lot of what's out there, as the relative thin-ness of the last couple weeks shows:

This Week In Tickets!

Stubless: American Casino (1 November, 11am, Brattle).

I can't really recommend American Casino when it opens at the Brattle this Wednesday, but it's far from the worst thing coming out this week: Apparently, after threatening to do so for about a year and a half, Magnolia is actually going to put Severed Ways out in a local theater. I saw it at the IFFB last year, and, well, really despised it. I suppose it's inspiring, in a way - if that piece of crap (literally - you get to watch the writer/director/star take a dump in front of you) can get theatrical distribution, there's hope for everyone else with an HD camcorder and a vague idea.

The Spanish Prisoner

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 27 October 2009 at the Brattle Theatre (Boston Noir)

I first saw The Spanish Prisoner at the Keystone Theater (which apparently doesn't even seem to have an entry in Cinema Treasures) in Portland, ME, and my older and wiser self has no trouble drawing a parallel between the two: Despite both having what seem to be all the pieces for success, they don't quite work out.

This is one of David Mamet's puzzle movies, and while there's plenty of genuine delight to that, there are also times when the plot seems to require that the movie take place in a parallel universe, where a certain type of clipped speech, odd behavior, and willful obliviousness to what's going on around them make a certain kind of con game more possible. The con certainly seems to have some weak points where it could have completely collapsed.

The cast makes it work very well, though. It is a lot of fun to see Steve Martin play against type as the smooth Jimmy Dell, without irony or much in the way of comedy until his last scene. The stiffness of Campbell Scott works for this character, especially when he's got the too-sweet Rebecca Pidgeon and grumbling Ricky Jay to play off. And I do sort of love how, after playing things very straight and precise from the beginning, Mamet allows things to become whimsical in the last few scenes.


* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 27 October 2009 at the Brattle Theatre (Boston Noir)

I reviewed this back when it originally came out (it's somewhat gratifying to see that while I occasionally cringe at how predictable my structure has become, the actual writing has improved). The second time through, I found I liked it even more. It's a genuinely engrossing thriller, but the second time through, I was more able to appreciate the acting. Val Kilmer just about fell off the map after this (Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is the only really noteworthy work he's done since), which is too bad, because this is a nifty performance, a guy who knows how to be a worker bee having to strike out on his own. On the other hand, Kristen Bell would get noticed soon after, being cast in Veronica Mars, and this is an early indication of how great she could be. She may be being wasted in the comedies she's doing now.

I'm kind of surprised this didn't hit the HD formats. I really wish it would.

Movie Movie

* * * (out of four)
Seen 30 October 2009 at the Harvard Film Archive (Debonair: Stanley Donen on Film)

It's a rare, rare thing for this sort of homage/pastiche/parody to work nearly as well as it does. There's a number of reasons for it - Stanley Donen had actually worked in musicals in a career that already spanned 30 years at the time the film was shot, for instance, so he has the comic rhythms down pat, and he doesn't try to modernize them even as he tweaks them.

What's most interesting, perhaps, is the different reaction I had toward both mini-films, even though Donen and writers Larry Gelbart and Sheldon Keller seem to be going for the same deadpan parody in both. The first half, "Dynamite Hands", hit me as a funnier-than-usual idiot movie, pure parody material, while the second half, "Baxter's Beauties of 1933", actually kind of works if you take it seriously. And that's coming from someone who doesn't really like musicals as a rule.

Where the Wild Things Are

* * * (out of four)
Seen 31 October 2009 at Jordan's IMAX Reading (first-run)

When I saw the first stills from Spike Jonze's Where the Wild Things Are, what, two years ago, my first reaction was that that was exactly what a filmed version of Where the Wild Things Are should look like. My second was that that there was no way that book could be made into a feature length movie. It's ten sentences long. To my surprise, the first thought was less true than I expected, the latter maybe a little more so.

I remember the Maurice Sendak book as brighter; even when it was night, everything was sharp. There seems to be a lot more gray and brown in the movie, with Jonze, co-writer Dave Eggers, and company creating a world that seems much more lived-in than the pure fantasy of the book. But that is, perhaps, as it should be - one of the great things about adapting a short work is that you can build it up, elaborate on ideas that interest you without it being at the expense of some other part of the story. It's more creative, and more satisfying, to do that than to cut down and change.

It also makes the result unarguably a Jonze film, and I like that. The way he and cinematographer Lance Acord shoot the opening scenes has me intrigued from the start; it's clearly the work of someone looking to make something more than disposable entertainment for kids, but it's also neither edgy nor overtly nostalgic. He's not talking down to the young folks in the audience, either - there's no obvious sting on the soundtrack when Max finds an ominous set of bones on the Wild Things' island, for instance. The flip side is that the movie does go on a bit too long, dragging at some points in the middle, and the soundtrack is a little too indie at times; for a movie in large part about rage, the music is sometimes too happy.

American Casino

* * (out of four)
Seen 1 November 2009 at the Brattle Theatre (Sunday Eye-Opener)

American Casino frustrates the heck out of me. The title mostly refers to to the first half of the movie, which purports to explain how the current financial crisis is the result of parts of the economy being treated as a game of chance, and it's almost completely unwatchable. If the idea is to show how it's all so confusing that even career economists can't understand it, mission accomplished, I guess, but, you know, it's no big accomplishment to demonstrate that something people already don't understand is confusing. It doesn't feel like a successful operation, though, more like sloppy filmmaking.

The second half, where the film zooms in on how it affects people on the ground, especially among Baltimore's African-American community, is much more successful, in large part because it manages a nifty trick: It introduces people to us with the implication that they are maybe not experts, but community support, and once the audience accepts that they are intelligent, capable people, reveals that they are in danger of losing their houses because they are victims. It's as manipulative a technique as any filmmaker uses, but surprising and effective. And if you can't muster up sympathy for your fellow human being, there's an intriguing bit on the environmental toll that this is taking.

So, filmmakers Andrew and Leslie Cockburn manage to do a few things right. Maybe things would have worked out better if they had narrowed their focus, because for all that individual segments are done well, the transitions between them are frequently poor, and the film as a whole feels confused, like the filmmakers knew what they wanted to talk about, but didn't know what they wanted to say.
The Spanish Prisoner / SpartanMovie MovieMovie Movie

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