True Grit trailer (12/25 release)

The Coen brothers used to come out with a new film every two or three years, and then after the dual low point of their career (Intolerable Cruelty and The Ladykillers), they seemed to have hit a wall, and it was four years later when they brought out No Country For Old Men.  Even though they’ve made two films since then, Burn After Reading and A Serious Man, True Grit feels very much like a response to, or a continuation of themes from, the movie that rejuvenated their careers.  I suppose it doesn’t hurt that Josh Brolin is again one of the leads.  And although it might appear to be both insanely ballsy and completely purposeless to remake a John Wayne classic (what are you really going to do with it?), Jeff Bridges has lately matured into the kind of Hollywood legend who is maybe the only guy around who could pull this off.   Right now we’re seeing so many Hollywood legends die every day; the last of the greats keep dropping before our eyes.  But Bridges feels like someone who is just now becoming a Hollywood legend of today, and there aren’t many in this day and age, not on that level.  Even casting someone like Tommy Lee Jones just would have felt like repeating something that has already been done dozens of times before, and yet still wouldn’t be hitting the mark.  But Bridges feels like a very inspired and authentic way of reimagining the character.  Also doesn’t hurt he’s worked with the Coens before, though Lebowski was about as far from this as you can get.  So in the category of “films you probably don’t ever want to remake,” True Grit looks as though it’s a 180 from their last foray of The Ladykillers, and a very personal project in spite of itself.

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Published in: on September 30, 2010 at 9:20 am  Leave a Comment  

The American, Anton Corbijn (2010)

The American is the kind of film that’s instantly going to alienate most mainstream American audiences; it’s slow, it’s intelligent, it’s meditative, and it’s philosophical.  Anyone expecting an action film or a quickly-paced thriller is going to either fall asleep or leave the theatre.  So it’s a bit surprising this is something Clooney would sign up for.  Not that he hasn’t participated in films with artistic leanings in the past, but never something to this uncommercial a degree.  This is much more along the lines of Antonioni’s The Passenger versus something like Michael Clayton or Syriana.

This is essentially an existential meditation on loneliness and love.  The main character Jack, played by Clooney, has spent his life isolated from people, and he’s been worn down by it.  But as much as he longs for connection, he’s still intensely private and quiet, and the style and pacing of the film take their queue from that.  The dialogue is exceedingly spare, and there are a lot of lingering, contemplative shots.  So it’s a good thing that the cinematography is so gorgeous.  It’s also a good thing that the film is directed with such intelligence that all of the long silences are guided by a very focused, contemplative questioning.  This is not a film that barrels along and hits you over the head with action or plot twists, but a film that asks you to look closely, study what you find, search for feeling, and ponder meaning.

Narratively, the film splits its time between detailing Clooney’s latest job, providing a weapon to a fellow assassin and a romance with a local Italian prostitue.  He receives the weapon itself in pieces through the mail and simply has to assemble it, but a great deal of time is spent as he custom builds a suppressor out of found machine parts.  This is probably the weakest part of the film, for as much time as is spent on it, and as central to the storyline as Jack’s knowledge and experience with weapons are, it’s disappointing to find out that the film really doesn’t get one thing right regarding the choice of weapons, their portrayal, or the way Jack builds the suppressor.  In a lesser film this may not be an issue, but in a film that is otherwise so intelligent, so particular, and so focused, to get everything wrong about such a central part of the film is really inexcusable.

His relationship with a local prostitute is his attempt to seek sex and some form of companionship while still keeping a woman at arm’s length and not endangering her.  His boss thinks he’s slipping and has begun to lose his touch, and it’s evident that even Jack knows he’s become wary and desiring of a different life.  Yet, for all of his intentions, Jack finds himself unable to keep the relationship purely physical and to deny his emotions.  There’s also somewhat of a burgeoning friendship with a local priest, which allows for several philosophical conversations about damnation and salvation, and an illustration of the disparity between idealistic intentions and choices made in an imperfect world.

With the glut of self-aware, hip, pop culture-obsessed hitmen films about “one last job,” it’s refreshing that someone has finally made a film about a hitman that is not simply a lazy way to write guns, violence, and sex into script.  Ironically enough, this film has all of those things; but what is so different is the attitude towards them.  Sex in The American isn’t something to titillate, but something to meditate on.  Violence and guns aren’t something to keep the audience awake and watching, but tools to ask questions about humanity.  And this is all front and center, so The American doesn’t try to entertain you while doing this and then do its real business under the table; it’s sincere in its questions and musings, and that is the entire purpose of the film.  On the one hand, the search for existential meaning isn’t exclusive to a hitman, and this longing for connection and purpose is something anyone should be able to relate to.  On the other hand, there are certainly degrees of isolation, loneliness, and guilt that wouldn’t necessarily be found in a lot of other characters and make the specifics of the film a very well chosen way to explore these themes.

For all of my talk about how intelligent and cerebral the film is, there are still some suspenseful scenes, and something that happens in the third act that is borderline shocking and very smartly-plotted.  Yet, most of the suspense is achieved through studiously crafted mood; there’s a scene where you know a character is going to pull a gun and shoot Jack at point blank until a bus of passengers pulls up just in time.  There’s nothing narrative to make this a complete certainty, although there are suggestions of it; but the contemplative tone the film has built results in the audience simply not needing much, because like Jack, we’ve learned to read so much from so very few details.  And that makes the suspense extremely concise and tangible throughout.

The American is finally a film about the struggle for salvation, redemption, and forgiveness, with the emphasis on “struggle.”  I can’t really make a specific argument without giving away the ending, but I can say that it will disappoint anyone who wants those things handed to them at the end in an easy Hollywood fashion wrapped in a pretty bow.  Just as in life, when things are earned, they’re usually long struggled for.  And often the fruits of our labor look different than we might imagine them during that long struggle.

7/10

Published in: on September 30, 2010 at 8:56 am  Leave a Comment  

The Fighter trailer (12/10 release)

Hopefully the course of the film’s development won’t be more interesting than the completed film itself.  At different times, directors David Fincher and Darren Aronofsky were attached to the film, as were actors Brad Pitt and Matt Damon.  Eventually Mark Wahlberg got involved, and became so passionate about playing Mickey Ward that he kept the film in development for a period of years while continuing daily training for the role, even while shooting other films.  He helped to secure financing and recruit David O. Russell to direct when Russell’s Hollywood stock was at its lowest after the failure of I Heart Huckabee’s and when Nailed went unfinished after the financial collapse of one of its key producers.  It’s worth noting that Wahlberg gave two of his best performances under Russell’s direction in Three Kings and I Heart Huckabee’s.  It should be worth seeing what Wahlberg delivers in a role he considers the most personal of his career, and having Christian Bale playing his brother certainly won’t hurt.

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Published in: on September 28, 2010 at 6:43 pm  Leave a Comment  

Machete, Ethan Maniquis & Robert Rodriguez (2010)

On the one hand, Robert Rodriguez seems to be a really nice guy who, after his personal climb into film directing by selling his body to medical science to finance his debut El Mariachi, is always willing to help give opportunities to friends and family.  But this means that Machete has co-writers and co-directors and isn’t coming as purely from Rodriguez himself as most of his other films, and the difference is a marked one.  For every inspired gag or moment of creative brilliance, which often abound in the better Rodriguez films, here the audience has to wade through miles of tired cliche, mediocrity, and amateurish production.

And this isn’t simply the by-product of a faux-exploitation film.  Rodriguez’s Grindhouse entry, Planet Terror, did much the same thing, but did so extremely successfully and with a manic creative energy to it.  That was a prime example of how to smartly turn something on its ear, and how to be inventive and sly while hitting the right marks.  It’s possible to send up the genre, but to do it with a knowing script that upends the genre’s conventions in interesting ways, or to make a good “bad” movie, or a smart “dumb” movie.  In Machete though, the script is simply weak, or “bad” bad, and more often uninspired than not.  It doesn’t help that the two female leads are played by Jessica Alba and Michelle Rodriguez, who are mediocre actresses at best and barely capable of hitting one note.  The most interesting performances are given by Jeff Fahey and Shea Wigham, two of the least well-known names in the cast.  And for all of the opportunities Rodriguez provides himself with a great concept that has a lot of jumping off points, he never really picks up the opportunities he provides himself and runs with them.  Some of the better moments include Machete using a bad guy’s intestines to jump out of a window and swing into the window of the floor below, and a fleet of pimped-out low rider cars pistoning down the street en masse.  But it’s these very occasional flashes of brilliance that illuminate how bereft of inspiration the rest of the film is.

The script and dialogue aren’t simply bad in a way that’s true to the genre, they’re flat.  The same holds true for the visual look of the film.  It lacks Rodriguez’s usual auteur’s eye.  Most of the set-ups feel like they were designed and executed by assistant assistant directors, and from the inclusion of Maniquis as a co-director and lots of other family members on the crew, it wouldn’t surprise me if that wasn’t very far from the truth; that Rodriguez actually did comparatively little hands-on work and let a lot of less talented and less experienced friends step up in his place.  And any kind of argument that a flat, poorly-made film is a proper representation of the genre and therefore a successful achievement is missing the point; Rodriguez is capable of so much more.  He is absolutely the kind of director capable of doing two things at once, at expanding and subverting a genre while playing within it.  Finally, Lindsay Lohan is not only totally wasted here, but it feels like the sad state of her career is being exploited at her own expense as a bad joke; it’s sad and pulls the audience out of the film and even makes one question Rodriguez’s motives.  Exploiting her isn’t the way to save his lackluster failure of an exploitation film.

4/10

Published in: on September 28, 2010 at 5:08 pm  Leave a Comment  

Going the Distance, Nanette Burstein (2010)

Going the Distance gets a lot of miles from its very likable leads Drew Barrymore and Justin Long.  This is a project that Barrymore shepherded along through development; not only is the subject matter timely and the project a bid to be taken seriously as a contemporary film about relationships and communication, but documentary director Burstein (The Kid Stays in the Picture, American Teen) was hand-picked by Barrymore, and the film co-stars Long, Barrymore’s long-time on-again, off-again real life boyfriend.

And it’s not your standard Hollywood romantic comedy.  In addition to the presence of Long as an unlikely but likeable romantic lead, the film’s subject matter has a lot in common with films such as The Break-Up, He’s Not Just That Into You, and (500) Days of Summer.  Which is to say that much of the film isn’t even attempting to be disposable Hollywood material, and it’s refreshing how all of the characters are plagued by employment problems, and the choices they make in life are largely affected by that.  This isn’t the sort of movie where a character simply goes to pour his heart out to a girl when he realizes he loves her; it has the loftier goal of trying to incorporate the complex choices people have to make in real life that are often controlled and even dictated by the current economic climate.  Barrymore’s sister in the film, played by Christina Applegate, is yet another sign of the hard-pressed economic times.  She’s constantly franticly cleaning the house and trying to hold things together with her kids.  There’s a scene where she’s talking to Barrymore’s Erin via Skype, and the scene in the background with her children is one of mass destruction, and eventually she has to go deal with it and leaves one of her kids in front of the computer for Erin to babysit.  Again, this is the kind of scene that just oozes with reality and feels much more honest than the kind of overly simplified, shorthanded scenes we’re used to getting with most Hollywood rom-coms.  Every character in Going the Distance is feeling the pressures of the economic climate and doing their best to hold things together and survive, making choices that, while true to themselves, are ultimately also laden with compromise.

This even carries through to the arc of the lead characters’ romance and relationship, and ultimately the resolution of that relationship.  And to a certain degree, the film is loaded with the kind of honesty that can sometimes be off-putting to mainstream audiences who don’t want complexity at the multi-plex, but simply want everything served up in user-friendly prepackaging for easy consumption.  Yet, what’s disconcerting is that while part of the film really does capture this level of honesty and reality rarely seen, there are also elements and scenes that continue to resort to stale romantic comedy cliches.  One particular example of this is the scene where Barrymore and Long rush into the sister’s house late at night and start to have sex on the dinner table without noticing that Jim Gaffigan’s brother-in-law is sitting there eating.  The scene actually plays well in the trailer, but taken within the context of the rest of the film, it’s somewhat disingenous and discredits the level of reality that’s been built to that point.  As if this weren’t bad enough, we’re then treated to a dinner scene where people keep dropping food on the despoiled table and then eating it, to the horror of Applegate and supposedly the audience.  Yet, the cringe factor is much lower than it should be, since the very nature of Applegate’s fastidiousness means that we know that table has been cleaned to a sparkle and there isn’t any offending material on it anyway.  But beyond that, it’s a bid to extend an unfunny joke that continues to discredit the film and chip away at previously earned credibility.

Long’s two best friends, played by the hilarious Charlie Day and Jason Sudeikis, suffer a similar fate.  What begins as refreshing honesty and character humor that evolves from this honesty, takes a left turn partway through the film as the writers seemed to have developed too much love for these supporting characters.  Sudeikis’ speech about why he sports a 70’s mustache to pick up older women is suspect enough, yet workable; but a later scene in a bar with Sudeikis, Day, and Long all sporting mustaches as part of a pick-up attempt is simply ugly and uncomfortable and should have been left on the cutting room floor.  There’s also a bit at the end of the film featuring that damnable dining room table, yet again, that basically kills the otherwise somewhat affecting ending of the film; another thing that should have been left out of the final cut.

So what ends up being a decent romantic comedy with a few glaring flaws and misteps, and very big misteps at that, had the potential to be so much more, and something truly special.  It’s a little alarming to consider how and why the filmmakers sabotaged their own film to the degree that they did, especially when the offending elements would have been so easily excised.  It’s the equivalent of ordering a really nice dessert at a four star restaurant, something almost exquisite, only to witness the waiter walk over to the table with a can of Cool-Whip in one hand and liberally spray your food.  You’re left to look down in horror at what could have been, and then send the whole thing back.

7/10

Published in: on September 22, 2010 at 3:37 am  Leave a Comment  

The Next Three Days trailer (11/19 release)

Here’s a trailer for the newest effort from writer/director Paul Haggis.  I know Crash got a lot of backlash, but in order for that to happen it first had to achieve a lot of success; and there are many, many films out there that have tried to do things similar to Crash and failed abysmally by comparison.  In general, Haggis is a superb scribe who’s economy of language hearkens backs to old Hollywood.  There’s a reason he got the job rebooting Bond with Casino Royale, and there’s a reason that film was as successful as it was.  Haggis’ talent is also on display in In the Valley of Elah, a film that walks a tightrope of political leanings, but does so with an incredibly tight and spare script.  The Next Three Days is a remake of a highly-touted French thriller named Pour Elle which I hear is fantastic.  Unfortunately, the original is not even available from Netflix.  But that’s probably okay, because I’m sure Haggis has done a bang-up job.  He’s got Russell Crowe as the lead, and while it’s the sort of role that might benefit from someone a bit more of an everyman, it’s also the sort of role that finds Crowe working to his greatest strengths as an actor.  Of course, Elizabeth Banks is always solid, and Liam Neeson seems to be bringing along a bit of the grizzled action authenticity he’s earned with the likes of Taken and The A-Team.

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Published in: on September 22, 2010 at 2:40 am  Leave a Comment  

Mesrine: Public Enemy No.1, Jean-François Richet (2010)

Mesrine: Public Enemy No.1, the sequel to Mesrine: Killer Instinct, that picks up the narrative directly on the heels of its predecessor, is somewhat more successful of a film when taken alone.  As I mentioned in my review of Killer Instinct, part of the problem of that film was it’s failure to provide any sort of vulnerability or internal aspect to the character.  As such, the audience was left with no reason to care about him, or the film.  But very quickly within the opening scenes of Public Enemy No. 1, Mesrine finds out his father is on his deathbed in the hospital and rushes home to see him, braving a hospital visit with one of his many disguises.  There’s an emotional reunion between the two men, in which Mesrine tells his father that it’s not his fault he turned out the way he did.  It’s not the kind of scene that compromises the character, or excuses him for what he’s done, or attempts to justify his choices.  And that works just fine.  It’s simply the inclusion of a scene where we see that Mesrine cares about someone, and we’re witness to his vulnerability, and it goes a long way towards giving the character at least enough redemption for us to care about him to continue watching his story unfold.

From there the film charts a continued criminal career that finds Mesrine increasingly reliant and proficient in various disguises.  It’s never portrayed in a way that’s over the top like some kind of over-produced Hollywood film, but it’s an element that’s present enough to be interesting.  And as Mesrine’s criminal career spirals along increasingly bizarre and esoteric paths, it functions as part of his character portrayal.  Mathieu Amalric, who is excellent as the beady-eyed and unnerving criminal Francois Besse, describes Mesrine as a top who doesn’t know he’s spinning out of control.  Mesrine takes up certain anti-prison political causes which are, at best, misinformed and suspect.  And he’s charismatic and gregarious and develops a certain relationship with the media, prizing himself as a criminal of the people and knowing that his public image plays a large role in his success, as well as the way he’s both pursued and prosecuted for his crimes.  There’s a brilliant, media-savvy strategist in Mesrine, but there’s also a real self-involved, unaware egoist.  Watching Mesrine’s criminal ascent and mental dissolution is fascinating.  This is also the film where Cassel really gets to sink his teeth into the character and his evolution of increasingly erratic behavior.

Also of interesting note is the evolution of Mesrine’s romantic relationships.  During a prison stint, he’s visited by his now-adult daughter, who is nevertheless extremely youthful and innocent.  Later, Mesrine takes up with Sylvie Jeanjacquot, and though they never marry, he treats her better and more tenderly than he ever treated his wife.  There’s a genuine love there, perhaps in no small part due to the fact that she looks remarkably like his daughter.  I’m not sure if this happened to simply be a caveat of the casting of these Mesrine films, but the similarity in age alone seems to open up a certain part of Mesrine’s psychology and provide the argument that he was serving a penance of his past relationships and trying to be both a father figure and a devoted lover to Jeanjacquot.

There’s also a fascinating relationship between Mesrine and Olivier Gourmet as police captain Broussard.  One scene shows Broussard allowing Mesrine twenty minutes inside an apartment to “get his affairs in order” before arresting him to avoid a bloodbath.  And the last twenty to thirty minutes of the film track Broussard’s stakeout that leads to Mesrine’s killing.  Again, the fact that the two films have been split for distribution negatively affects the whole purpose of this climax having been telegraphed in the first film.  Anyone who hasn’t seen Killer Instinct doesn’t receive any of the benefit of the suspense of knowing that Mesrine will be caught, and so the whole device is purposeless.  Nevertheless, it doesn’t hobble the film the way that Killer Instinct is lessened as a standalone, and it’s still able to play successfully on its own.  However, both films are improved significantly when viewed together.

8/10

Mesrine: Killer Instinct & Mesrine: Public Enemy No.1 rated as a single film together: 8/10

Published in: on September 22, 2010 at 2:03 am  Leave a Comment  

Mesrine: Killer Instinct, Jean-François Richet (2010)

Mesrine: Killer Instinct is the first of two films spanning the life and career of French criminal Jacques Mesrine, directed by Jean-François Richet and starring Vincent Cassel as Mesrine.  Cassel is an intensely charismatic actor, and as such he’s a pretty natural fit for Mesrine.  He’s easily able to capture the many sides of the character, from passionate romantic and gregarious playboy to focused criminal-in-training to suspicious and studied career criminal.  The supporting cast is all aces, from a fattened Gerard Depardieu as crime boss Guido, to Elena Anaya as Mesrine’s wife Sofia, to Cecile De France as Mesrine’s partner-in-crime-and-kidnapping Jeanne Schneider.  Part of what makes Mesrine’s story so fascinating is the global scope of it.  After growing up in a modest home in France and serving as a soldier in the Algerian war, he returns from the war and comes home, falling in with old friends and the wrong crowd, and heading down a path of small-time robberies.  He connects with Depardieu’s Guido who serves as a criminal mentor, and the scale of the robberies escalates over time.  Eventually he becomes widely sought after in France, heads for Canada, hooks up with Jeanne Schneider, and after a brief fling going straight as a construction worker, decides to kidnap a billionaire for ransom.  His eventual arrest leads to a long prison sentence and eventual escape, but it’s his time in prison that imbue him with some anti-government, pseudo-political leanings.

I’ve read favorable comparisons between these films and The Godfather I and II, and as solid as the Mesrine films are, that’s giving them far more credit than they’re due.  While they’re well-acted across the board and well-directed, there’s nothing that really approaches the level of cinematic masterpiece of the two Godfather films.  If anything, the epic scope of the Mesrine films comes simply from the international breadth of Mesrine’s career and the story itself.  I’m uncertain if the films were originally intended to be one long movie, and were split in two for distribution purposes.  It certainly feels that way, and the films function better and more coherently if watched all in one viewing.  Killer Instinct, in particular, suffers as a result of being viewed on its own, but as that is the way it has been released, that’s the way I’m going to review it.

So, taken alone, the problems with Mesrine: Killer Instinct are three-fold.  The first is something that happens in the opening scene of the film, so I don’t really consider revealing it a spoiler.  That opening scene is a flash-forward to Mesrine’s death.  The problem here is that the scene in its entirety doesn’t occur until the end of the film’s sequel, Mesrine: Public Enemy No. 1.  As such, and taken alone, Mesrine: Killer Instinct becomes a film where we watch the main character killed in the opening, and it makes the audience far less interested in investing in him or his story; we already know his fate.  What makes this element more problematic is the fact that the narrative of Mesrine’s life never reaches that point by the end of Killer Instinct, so the beginning of the film becomes not only sabotaging to the material, but a cinematic non-sequitur.

The second problem is that ultimately, the audience needs a reason to root for Mesrine, or at least a reason to be interested in him and his plight.  There are plenty of gangster films out there that humanize the lead character in some way so that the audience cares enough to emotionally invest in the story, even when the protagonist has questionable morals at best.  The flip side would be not to humanize the character, but simply to present a fascinating character study.  But Mesrine isn’t really a psychological or character study, at base it’s a bravura performance by Cassel and as such, we’re intended to invest in the character and to care about him to some degree.  The problem is that, as varied and skilled a performance Cassel gives, we never really see a vulnerable side to the character in Killer Instinct.  We’re left watching many sides of him, but ultimately nothing to relate to or to truly make an audience care about him.  Inevitably the question arises: Why am I supposed to care about this protagonist or this story, or this film?  And it’s not a question that the first film ever tries to answer.

Finally, the third hurdle that Killer Instinct throws up in front of itself is Mesrine’s treatment of his wife Sofia.  There’s a period in the film where we see the romantic side of Mesrine, and he courts, wins, and marries this Spanish beauty.  For a time, it seems as though the film may chart the distance between’s Mesrine’s criminal career and his desire to be a family man and to love his wife.  Then the scene plays where Mesrine beats his wife, makes her open her mouth so that he can place a loaded gun inside it, while their child watches no less, and tells her that he will never care about her more than he cares about his friends, and if that she ever calls the police to try to “save” him he will kill her.  At that point, any chance for a sympathetic protagonist goes right out the window.  Now, I’m not necessarily trying to argue for any kind of retroactive character retooling or changing something that actually happened in real life to make Mesrine a nicer, more cuddly protagonist.  But this scene and dynamic, when taken along with the fact that the audience is kept at arm’s length from the character for the entire running length of the film, and the fact that we never really get to see a side of the character to make an audience invest in him in any way, culminates in a real narrative and storytelling dilemma.

As good as the acting is (and Roy Dupuis is also great as Jean-Paul Mercier), there simply become few reasons to care about Mesrine.  We’re left to witness the nonstop parade of Mesrine’s crimes from an uninvolved distance.  And by the time the film reaches its climax with Mesrine in prison and attempting to escape, the whole thing seems fairly pointless.  And that’s a discredit to the top-notch creative efforts of everyone involved with the film.

7/10

Published in: on September 22, 2010 at 1:26 am  Leave a Comment  

The Last Exorcism, Daniel Stamm (2010)

The irony of Daniel Stamm’s pseudo-documentary bearing Eli Roth’s name to guarantee it distribution and theatrical bookings, is that the quality of the film is so far beyond anything Roth is capable of making, and that tonally, it’s about 180 degrees from a Roth film.  The marketing, television spots, and trailers seem to promise exactly the kind of trash you would expect from Roth, and while it may get a certain audience purchasing tickets and into the theatre, it’s probably not the audience who will enjoy the film, and it’s also a misrepresentation of the content and quality of the film itself.

The film’s greatest strengths are the acting and writing, and they sustain the movie for the majority of its running time.  It’s probably a third of the movie before we even get to the farmhouse where the afflicted Nell lives, and half of the film before we get to the first exorcism.  No, the screenplay takes it’s time in establishing the character of preacher Cotton Marcus in pseudo-documentary fashion.  We’re introduced to Cotton and his family over the first 20-30 minutes of the film, and the interchanges are well-written enough, and the acting sublime enough, that this could be a real documentary.  Patrick Fabian, who plays Cotton Marcus, has been an omni-present television series guest star for the last twenty years on shows such as Millenium, Friends, Providence, 24, Joan of Arcadia, Veroncia Mars, and Pushing Daisies.  He normally has grey-white hair, but for The Last Exorcism it’s been dyed brown, which makes him look a little younger than he normally does, and also helps Fabian be a little less recognizable to those who may remember him from series television.

His character is largely based on child evangelist Marjoe Gortner, who in 1972 had a crisis of faith and allowed himself to be the subject of the documentary Marjoe, which exposed the world of faith healers and Revivalist sermonizing.  The opening of the film explores the character of Cotton, beginning with his induction into the world of preaching as a child minister at the behest of his preacher father.  He had a natural talent for it, ran with it, and continued to excel with it as an adult and family man.  But with the birth of his own son, who has some medical issues, and with the current economic crisis, Cotton Marcus is undergoing a crisis of conscience and faith.  He’s examining what lies beneath his natural abilities to inspire or control a crowd, and the economic and moral responsibilities he’s begun to feel for his parishioners.  One aspect of his practice has always been exorcisms, and just in general, dealing with the more superstitious elements that come with being a religious leader in some of the more rural parts of the South.  To this point, Cotton has always towed the line that if something helps someone, even if that’s only because they believe in it, then it’s worth doing.  In other words, he may not believe in ghosts or demons, but if an exorcism works because it helps clear the conscience of those who do believe in such things, then its as legitimate a solution as anything else.  Sometimes the nature of the treatment depends on the belief system of those being treated.

But after some of the recent developments in the news, with an overzealous exorcism having caused the death of a young boy, and with the Catholic church planning to begin promoting exorcism more heavily than ever, Cotton Marcus sees this as the time to perform one last exorcism, invite a documentary film crew along to expose it for the sham it is, and then to hang up his hat and concentrate on the parts of his practice he can actually believe in.  Which may mean becoming a used car salesman.

What makes all of this so special, and so fascinating to watch, is again the acting and writing.  Patrick Fabian is so good as Cotton Marcus, so social and affable, and his performance so multi-layered, that we’re won over by him personally, and sympathetic to his plight.  We see him preaching to his congregation, where he slips a banana bread recipe into his sermonizing just to prove to the film crew that he’s such a skilled orator he can successfully slip anything into his speech and still keep his crowd going.  Later, when he prepares for the first exorcism at the house, he takes the film crew on a tour of the bedroom, and all of the tools and devices he’s created and planted to supplement the experience.  He’s a Barnam-esque showman, with a pride in his work but also with a child’s delight at the prankishness of it all.  And there’s a joie de vivre in his presence, whether he’s speaking to the crowd or speaking to the camera, that’s infectious and winning.

Yet at the same time, we also see the other side of Cotton, the family man who’s genuinely concerned for his family, who’s having a hard time making ends meet, and who feels socially responsible.  He doesn’t want to be misleading anyone any more, particularly if it could cause harm.  He’s reached a new level in his desires to be socially responsible, and believes that in debunking his own exorcism practices, he can help demystify it in general, and prevent it from being used to manipulate, abuse, or hurt unknowing believers in the future.  So we get a very three-dimensional portrait of Cotton Marcus; we see him at his extroverted, social, entertaining best, and we also see him as a more introspective and socially concerned father and family man.

And all of this is portrayed so effortlessly and with such guileless ease by Fabian that it’s an entertaining joy to watch.  This is someone with all of the skill, craft, and experience you would expect from twenty years as a working actor, who’s never had his shot at a lead role like this before, and certainly never had the chance to headline a big theatrical release.  I’m not sure if there was any idea how big the release would be while filming; I assume since it was shot on such a low budget that the actors and production staff probably assumed they’d be lucky to get any kind of theatrical release at all, and it would likely go straight to DVD and cable.  This was before the festivals, Roth putting his name on the film, and the pick-up for distribution.  But Fabian never gives it less than 100%, and does so with such confidence, natural charm, and subtle assuredness that it’s a wonder he isn’t already a name actor.  He may not immediately get feature leads in Hollywood films immediately following this, but I’d be shocked if he didn’t become a very sought-after character actor who’s constantly booked in much higher-profile projects than he’s ever been before.

And then there’s Ashley Bell, who plays the afflicted, Nell Sweetzer.  Just like Fabian, Bell gives a wonderfully natural performance, one where you never see her acting.  And she has quite a bit to do, from the exorcism scenes to her multi-faceted portrayal of an innocent, introverted farm girl dealing with her beloved mother’s death and an alcoholic father.  Since the film had virtually no budget, and therefore little to no special effects budget, the frights we witness during the exorcisms rely on double-jointed contortions, which in and of itself is freakishly off-putting.  But there are subtle nuances to how she plays some elements of the exorcism scenes, as well as the way she handles her character as a whole, that really help build the suspense of the film as well as the reality of the setting.

It’s the combination of these elements and the way director Stamm expertly handles them all, working with a single camera no less, that really speaks to his talent, craft, and professionalism.  He’s created a film with two lead performances that are among the year’s best.  And he’s crafted a film that, for most of its running time, engrosses with character, performance, and very intelligently and deftly developed story.

As the film approaches its climax, the intensity and suspense ratchets up, and it unfortunately hits a point where the train runs off the tracks.  There’s a story twist in the last ten minutes or so of the film that initially appears rife with possibility.  But the way in which it’s handled is ultimately disappointing.  It’s good for a bit of shock, but it raises a lot of questions that can’t really be answered based on what has preceded it.  As a result, it doesn’t feel like something organic, or the result of hidden groundwork that has been laid and then revealed.  Sure, you can point to a couple of things earlier in the film that may signal it in a very superficial way, but there are huge logic gaps, and it’s the equivalent of those internet videos of something unobtrusive, where 20 seconds into the clip a ghoul is screaming at you in close-up.

What has come before, the level of story and performance, is simply too well-executed and deserving of a better ending.  I’m all for twists and shock endings, even things that throw a new element into the mix, but Stamm hasn’t crafted this change-up with the same level of craft that he’s demonstrated for the rest of the film.  The end result is that the audience is left with a sense of confusion and pointlessness, as well as a sense of betrayal by the fact they thought they had been watching a better film.  And again, it’s not simply the content of the ending, which many people may have arguments with by itself, but the sloppy handling of that content.

The Last Exorcism is still a film worth seeing, and one of the better releases out in theatres right now.  Far better than you would think for having Eli Roth’s name plastered across it as a producer.  Yet it loses a point or two in my book for the handling of the ending, and ends up being a flawed film with some great performances and a lot of potential, instead of the sleeper classic it could have been.  It’s still made a ton of money, already over 10 times its budget in less than a week, so it’s been hugely profitable for its distributor regardless.  But a lot of audiences have disliked the way it ends, and I have a feeling bad word-of-mouth will kill its theatrical run over the next few weeks, when this could have been the kind of movie to keep playing and gaining audiences for weeks or even months.  And that’s a shame, because so much of it, about 80 minutes worth, is incredibly deserving of a large audience and a lengthy theatrical run.

7/10

Published in: on September 2, 2010 at 2:19 am  Leave a Comment  

Despicable Me, Pierre Coffin & Chris Renaud (2010)

Despicable Me stands head and shoulders above a lot of recent animated releases, but it still can’t compete with the industry-defining level of Pixar releases.  Instead, it trades in the kinds of cliches that populate the genre, but does so fairly cleverly.  Nevertheless, while it contains a certain level of creativity and playfulness that adults can enjoy to some degree, it’s still primarily aimed at younger kids (well, except for the occasional throwaway gag like the name plate for the Evil Bank that reads underneath “formerly Lehman Brothers”).

As such, the film has a relatively modest set-up, and doesn’t overburden itself with the kind of story density that might elevate it to a higher level.  There are a couple of hooks at play: competition between a pair of evil villains; and one evil villain in particular, our protagonist Gru, who adopts a trio of orphans, and like the Grinch, finds his heart growing as a result.   Of course, his reason for adopting them is only to use them in one of his villainous schemes, namely to help procure a shrink ray that he needs to steal the moon.  But once he spends some time with the girls, he begins to identify with them as a result of his own neglected childhood.  Within these parameters, the storyline follows a predictable path, though the sequences are well-executed and feature a solid attention to detail.

The worst part of the film is probably the horde of Gru’s minions, the small yellow creatures who only speak in nonsense and are probably destined to become marketing tools across various media.  They get too much screen time, particularly when their antics never go beyond infantile behavior, but again, the film is primarily intended for younger children, who likely will love the minions.  In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me if a Minions film or television show were announced at some point in the near future.

The greatest strength is the films’ voice talent.  Jack McBrayer and Danny McBride voice various supporting characters; Jason Segel plays it up as Gru’s rival villain, Vector; Kristin Wiig hits it as a corrupt orphanage manager;  Julie Andrews is fantastic as Gru’s grouchy mother; Will Arnett is sublimely superb as the Evil Bank president; Russell Brand plays brilliantly against type as Gru’s ancient lab partner and Bondsian Q-alike; and Steve Carell is, of course, in his element and creative as ever as lead Gru.  There’s a little too much Dr. Evil in Gru, both in terms of character design and vocal styling, but Carell gives him a sort of eastern European accent that helps to provide some slight character distance.  The girls who play the three orphans are universally excellent, as well, and the youngest of them, Elsie Fisher, is both heart-capturingly adorable and perpetually hilarious.

All of the voice cast has so much infectious fun, that it carries the film, keeping the energy level as high as possible for its modestly-aimed material.  This is also the kind of animated release that makes great use of 3D, rather than just slapping it on as an additional hook, and the energy from the voice cast is complemented by the creativity and playfulness put into the 3D formatting.

6/10

Published in: on September 1, 2010 at 11:52 pm  Leave a Comment  
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