Sunday, November 29, 2009

Redbox Risk Review: My Life in Ruins

Over the break I watched My Life in Ruins, starring Nia Vardalos, who is Greek. Nia had a big wedding in another film, which I have also seen (twice).

It should be noted that I saw My Life In Ruins because of my girlfriend.

Watching the movie was my proposal, but only as part of a calculated maneuver designed to ensure I saw Ninja Assassin on opening day, which happened to be during my visit. This did not happen, as it turns out that my girlfriend is afraid of ninjas (Note: This is not actually true; she is not afraid of ninjas so much as not eager to watch a movie that heavily relies on gore to move the plot along. Having seen Ninja Assassin just today, I must concur with her decision to skip the film. Blood happens a lot. The gore was so intense—apparently—that I was carded when I bought my ticket. I’m 25; I don’t even get carded for drinks anymore. So double kudos to the family that brought their three year old to the movie and sat in the front!).

Digression aside (No, just kidding. I want to talk briefly about The Book of Eli. This is a movie I know nothing about. I’d never heard of it prior to catching the trailer today, and I’m going to scrupulously avoid learning more about the film. It’s entirely possible it turns out to be some zealous religious film, or something with an M. Night Shamamawow-esque “twist” ending, or even a Scientology vehicle. I don’t know. I don’t care. I will see this movie. Any film that lets Denzel play a hard-bitten, gritty hero while Gary plays a maniacal villain with a loyal but unsettling army of misfits—that’s a film I’ll be seeing. Mila Kunis is also shaping herself into a moderately well-off man’s Eliza Dushku, so that’s cool. Plus, there’s the knife.), My Life in Ruins was actually pretty good. I think, on the whole, I enjoyed it better than the big wedding.

The plot moves with surprising speed, and the disparate group of characters coming together into a beautiful unit occupies far less of the film than I would have expected. It works, though, because the film centers around a tour guide, her hirsute bus driver, and the loveable gang of misfits she’s saddled with. I could talk about how the plot develops, but I figure you can get that from IMDB. Instead, I’ll mention the single biggest surprise this movie held for me: it’s about Richard Dreyfuss, an esteemed actor whose name I utterly mangled when I Facebooked that revelation following my viewing the film.
As evidenced by my previous review, I have a certain affection for talented, big-name actors “slumming” in movies that don’t get a lot of attention (and possibly head straight to the Red Box). Dreyfuss plays an irascible, joke-slinging loudmouth who comes off as a prick but turns out to be a wonderful dude. Also, he totally scores at one point. The reason his character is memorable isn’t great writing—I’m not entirely sure this movie is particularly well-written. Instead, it’s because of the challenge of the character; Dreyfuss is playing a character who is not especially funny, but thinks he’s funny, and comes off as a prick to people who don’t think he’s funny, which is everyone but him, because he’s not funny. And the man actually manages to make the character…funny.

There are other amusing characters. The awesomely-named Rachel Dratch and awesomely-in-that-movie-with-a-dildo-lightsaber-battle Harland Williams both deliver performances that are probably funny. Since they’re playing ignorant tourist Americans I imagine some of the humor is lost on me, though. I’m an American and I really don’t remember the last movie I watched that portrayed Americans as anything but boorish assholes in a foreign context. The IHOP character elicited more chuckles because he collected artesian syrups and kept comparing things to pancakes. Jareb Dauplaise apparently keeps playing the same ignorant frat boy character…his IMDB page is saturated with fraternal appearances. I wonder if he really pledged. His bio is adorable, and his performance as a really, really ignorant tourist (also American, but it seems like less of a thing) is probably the funniest of the four non-Dreyfuss Americans.

Alexis Georgoulis plays a character named Poupi Kakas, and he does so with an entirely straight face. His deadpan delivery and gradual transformation from tamed bear to dude getting laid is solid—I wondered, watching it, if he was as amused by the whole production as his character seemed to be. My girlfriend also confirms that he looks spectacular in minimal clothing. So there’s that.

But it honestly all comes back to Dreyfuss. Without his character to bring balance to Vardalos, the entire film would have been much harsher and abrupt. Dreyfuss combines impishness, gravity and wisdom, and a certain “Yeah, I’m a prick. But I’m a prick because I earned it,” in such a way that his manipulation of the other characters into a coherent group is believable. It’s not the kind of role Dane Cook could deliver—Dreyfuss manages because he constantly exudes the sense that he knows when his character isn’t being entertaining, because he intended it to play out that way. It’s also not something I could see, say, Bill Murray pulling off—I feel like his presence would quickly overwhelm the other actors, even if he weren’t trying to ham it up. Dreyfuss, though, he pulled it off and added several layers to what would otherwise have been a very shallow, rushed film set in beautiful surroundings.

Did I enjoy the flick? Yes. I like romantic comedies. If I hadn’t watched it with my special lady friend I imagine I would have made my way around to it on my own, eventually. But she really wanted to see it and had so little luck finding it (even the first two days I was out there) that when it popped up in a Red Box I knew our night was set. I wanted to be sure she got to see it.

The fact that I think I enjoyed it more than she did, though…there’s probably no excusing that part. I claim ninja withdrawal.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

A Brief Flurry of Applause

11/18-Around 3am

Well DONE, scary dream! After all these years, I thought that you'd run out of ways to make sleep paralysis and the suggestion of a malevolent female presence lurking ever nearer frightening. I mean cmon, that's been done to death. And me. And done to me to my perceived death. But hope, and apparently stark, unreasoning terror, be all springing eternal and shit. And my constant quest to go to bed and STAY asleep is once more derailed, albeit however momentarily, so I can have a bowl of cereal and remind myself that this is a world that has things like child slavery, religious and political intolerance, and Adam Lambert (that's just a random pop culture reference; I really don't know who that is, or care), and not a world of unrelenting, inky blackness and a sticky web of choking phlegm forming a caul over my throat.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Redbox Risk Review: The Maiden Heist

Let me start this review by stating that Marcia Gay Harden looks incredible. I've been a fan of her for years, in the sense that she's in someone I see in movies and think "Oh, it's her! I like her." She has quirky, unconventional (yet delightful) features and is one of those "character actors" who blends relatively seamlessly into whatever role she's playing. Comparing her venomous performance in King of Texas to the slightly naif wife she plays in The Maiden Heist gives just a slight example of her range. It also underscores another important fact: for a woman who just crested 50, Marcia Gay Harden has a fabulous rack. I seriously wanted to applaud, particularly because it goes on display toward the end of a film in which she's purposefully portrayed as somewhat dowdy. The only other scene that prominently displays any of her flesh is when her husband is massaging some unguent onto her feet.

Her husband, by the way, is played by Christopher Walken. Walken's character is the focus of The Maiden Heist, supported by William H. Macy and Morgan Freeman. This is obviously a phenomenal cast, and yet you may be saying "I have never heard of this movie." I had originally anticipated suggesting that folks from big cities, which presumably have arthaus theatres galore, would be exempted from that statement; then I did a bit of internet research and learned that the film's original distributor went bankrupt before the it could be shown anywhere. Folks in Edinburgh for their film festival apparently caught a show and then...DVD.

The Maiden Heist falls into a beloved film category for me: movies I see advertised at the Redbox rental kiosks, have absolutely never heard of, and pick up mostly because of that latter fact. I like to gamble, and one dollar is the perfect price to pay when doing so. I recognize some might say "free" is the perfect price to pay, but I really don't dig the whole internet-piracy thing where movies are concerned. I don't know where I'd go to do it, I don't really know how one does it, and I don't think that my tenuous wireless connection could handle any attempts at it. So the Redbox satisfies my cinematic adventurousness. When I saw the Maiden Heist splashed across the "Coming Soon" strip above the screen, I knew I'd be picking up a copy if it happened to be stocked at the local Smith's (admittedly an iffy proposition).

It also helps that The Maiden Heist is, obviously, a heist film. I love heist films (and no, this doesn't mean I've seen x classic heist film- I'm not a huge consumer of "classic" films that don't involve Godzilla, truthfully). I enjoy the intricacy of planning, the fast-talking con men, the tension, the few things that utterly fall apart in every execution, the twists, the twisty twists, the twisty twist retwists, and the expectation going in that things might completely fall apart by the film's conclusion. I enjoy the promise of these things even when the film doesn't deliver. Morgan Freeman apparently agrees with me, since he starred in The Code, also released on DVD this year and apparently called "Thick as Thieves" everywhere, including IMDB, except on the DVD itself. The Code was another Redbox Risk (catchy, non?) and it was wretched. Part of my excitement for The Maiden Heist was the hope that, this time, Morgan would deliver- and he definitely did.

The titular heist is centered around a titular (no entendre intended!) maiden, a painting to which the viewer is introduced at the start of the film. Christopher Walken's character, Roger Marlow, is a security guard at an art museum, and he's spent many years standing in front of a painting called "The Lonely Maiden." The movie reveals its tone immediately with an awesome action sequence (really), and quickly sets about illustrating Roger's relationship with the painting. The relationship is threatened when he learns that an entire display, Maiden included, is going to be shipped to Denmark; to be replaced by animal phalluses and dung statues. Roger despairs, privately, until he catches Charles (Morgan Freeman) sobbing a few rooms over. Charles has his own attachment to another painting, "Woman with Cats." He also knows, due to his overtime job reviewing night security tapes, about George McLendon (William H. Macy)'s nocturnal adventures with a bronze statue.

Together, the three hatch a plan to steal the respective works of art before they can be shipped off to snowy Denmark (after discussing the feasibility of moving there instead). The plan itself is clearly not the focus of the film, or the plot; one of the elements is to secure perfect copies of the articles in question, which presents almost no difficulty for any of the characters. Charles just whips one up, as his love of the painting has resulted in the ability to perfectly replicate it, endlessly, in almost any medium. George already had something like this in the works for his own purposes, apparently, and Roger overcomes his own obstacle relatively swiftly. Most of the other elements of the plan, and twists therein, are handled in equally short order. One of the film's themes is the relative laxity of security at the museum/museums in general, and the general disinterest which permeates guards and curators alike. Roger corrects a tour guide at the start of the film, and there's a great shot of hurriedly consulting her crib sheet as he expounds on the history of The Lonely Maiden.

The Maiden Heist dispenses with most of the genre's tropes. Instead of the intricacies of the heist, the authorities closing in, and the duplicity of thieves and con men, the movie focuses on the three guards. Each of these men has shaped their lives around the art they adore, and it's suggested that they were shaped to appreciate those particular pieces by their lives as well. It's this powerful connection the works that brings the three together, though most of their interactions serve to highlight the differences between their personalities. The fact that the three characters are played by three incredibly talented, experienced, and fascinating actors is what holds the film together.

There are some films (The Code) that slip under the radar despite having one or more big names; then you watch them and realize that the big name is barely performing. I'm not an actor and I've always avoided theater due to a personal conviction that I couldn't possibly memorize and deliver lines with any sort of emotional resonance, so I'm not making the claim that what they're doing is by any means easy. However, the movies I'm describing have famous, well-known and respected actors in roles that derive no intrinsic benefit from their presence; the director could just as easily have employed a total unknown and, outside of that name draw, had the same impact. If the movie is relatively unknown, the aforementioned name draw apparently didn't work in the first place. The Maiden Heist is not one of these movies.

Freeman's Charles is fascinatingly effeminate; this probably stands out more for me since I watched Wanted all of yesterday, where he's a combination of stately authority, slightly rumpled wisdom, swaggering contempt, and a bit of coarse thuggishness. By contrast, Charles is fragile and fluttery, but somewhat inconsistently. He also owns several cats. Several. Many. I admit that when first introduced to his feline companions I hadn't actually noticed there were cats in the painting with which he's bonded (the focus in the shot was on the woman in the frame) and so it wasn't until the latter chunk of the movie that I began to see how the painting influenced his character. He's not presented as a flouncing characature, but the occasional gesture of a hand or soft exclamation renders him much softer that either of his cohorts, or even his initial impression in the coffee shop meeting with Roger.

Macy's George is probably the most outrageous of the three, all swaggering bravado and military jargon, mixed with serious paranoia and...well, I don't want to spoil his defining characteristic. Once again, it's easy to see the influence of his chosen work of art, The Bronze Warrior, in his personality and lifestyle (idealized and expressed).

In comparison to the others, Walken's Roger might seem flat and poorly defined. The scenes with Marcia tend to be dominated by her performances, as well as her dialogue, and the suggestion is that this is how his entire marriage operates. His relationship with the Maiden is less one of emulation, more an almost romantic connection. However, Roger is the only character who really interacts with anyone else in the film; he has moments with his wife, artists in the park, fellow security guards, and a few others. The awkwardness of these interactions usually leads to some humor, though it's almost never delivered in the form of lines from Walken himself. It should be noted that a flat, quiet, non scene-stealing character played by Christopher Walken is notable in itself; part of the humor with Roger comes from you, as an audience member, expecting a typically wacky Walken delivery and not getting it.

Well, for most of the movie. There's an obvious and necessary evolutionary arc at work here, where Roger eventually has to step up to the plate. What I found fascinating about the plot, however, is how each of the three guards is the dominant male at some point. In the beginning, Charles seems to be relatively insidious, clever, forceful, and manipulative. That lasts up until George opens his bag (you'll see) and then George is ascendant, if not always obeyed, through most of the film. The film progresses almost like a fairy tale, where each critical moment can only be overcome by the timely intervention of one of these strange, imperfect men.

There's a lovely message in The Maiden Heist about what grabs us and affects us, either due to repeated exposure or one sudden, brilliant, beautiful moment. There's also a lovely shot of Marcia Gay Harden's crowded balcony. If you live within driving/walking distance of a grocery store/McDonald's/Walmart/other place with a Redbox, odds are very good this movie is available for rent. And if you're reading this, you're probably inclined to listen to my advice, in which case I say it's worth the risk.