Saturday, May 30, 2009

Degrees of Cool

The Friends of Eddie Coyle came out thirty-five years ago and I've been wanting to see it for at least the last twenty-five, ever since stumbling upon Roger Ebert's rave review in one of his anthologies of film criticism. Now, thanks to Criterion, it's finally available on DVD, and the results are both expected and surprising. Expected in that it's an absorbing early-70s crime drama -- gritty, downbeat, and character-driven; surprising in how little "action" there is in a film featuring bank heists, gun-dealings, and assassinations -- and how little the lack of it matters.

Adapted from the Boston-based novel by George V. Higgins (an author I've heard of but never read), The Friends of Eddie Coyle casually weaves a tangled plot featuring the stool pigeon of the title, Eddie (Robert Mitchum), a low-ranking, avuncular thug willing to rat out his underworld connections to his cop acquaintance Det. Foley (Richard Jordan) in order to get an approaching sentence waived. Foley is on the trail of a quartet of unorthodox bank robbers (led by Alex Rocco, as calm and rational here as he was hot-headed and impulsive playing Moe Greene only a year earlier in The Godfather) and, unbeknownst to Eddie, is using another surreptitious contact with criminal ties, a local bartender named Dillon (Peter Boyle) who freelances as a hit-man during his spare time.

Five years earlier the skillful British director, Peter Yates, made Bullitt, another gripping crime procedural starring Hollywood's other "Mr. Cool" (of whom Mitchum once quipped, "He sure don't bring much brains to the party, that kid") and featuring a famous car chase along the bumpy vertical streets of San Francisco. Yates is working on a different coast and in a different tempo in Eddie Coyle; the film is basically a series of verbal confrontations where the better talker emerges the victor. It's the threat of bodily harm that Eddie uses, for example, against cottage-industry arms dealer Jackie Brown (Steven Keats) to get a handful of machine guns; it's the threat of prison that Foley uses against Eddie to get the information he needs.

It's a lesson obviously learned by Quentin Tarantino, and not just because the aforementioned name became the title of one of his movies. (Jackie Brown -- both the movie and Pam Grier's character -- is better known as an amalgam of "Jackie Burke," the protagonist in Elmore Leonard's Rum Punch, and Grier's 70s blaxploitation flick Foxy Brown, but it's clearly a nod to this picture as well.) Tarantino, as a filmmaker, has been typecast as a hyperviolent stylist, when actually (with the exception of Kill Bill Vol. 1) it's the threat of violence that looms over his films, with words used as weapons. The dialogue in The Friends of Eddie Coyle (scripted by Paul Monash, though taken mostly, I've read, from Higgins's novel) is memorable though less stylized than out of the mouths of Tarantino's characters. And nobody talks a better game than Mitchum. I suspect QT was also taken by the idea of a comeback by a once-famous icon from an earlier era (cf. Travolta in Pulp Fiction, David Carradine in Kill Bill), and Mitchum brings plenty to the table. He's focused here in a way he often wasn't when coasting on his street cred; he gives Eddie a quiet desperation, a middle-aged vitality, and a way of not being as smart as he thinks he is.

The only flaw in the movie is a regrettably bouncy, tone-deaf jazz score that works at cross-purposes with the gallows-humor ambiance. Not sure why Yates included it or if it was thrust upon him; but the performances (led by Mitchum -- one of the best of his long, notorious, remarkable career -- as well as Peter Boyle's weirdly hot-wired passivity) and atmosphere more than compensate. It should be mentioned that Yates was a versatile director, whose most famous film may be the warm-hearted, Indiana-set, bicycle-racing comedy Breaking Away. The Friends of Eddie Coyle is a world apart from that picture, yet it shares (as many foreign-born filmmakers have been able to convey) a genuine feel for America, a fascination for its people, a knack for suggesting what makes them tick. Just when we've all but forgotten that movies can do this, this one has returned to remind us.

As an aside, here's the Criterion Collection cover, which is admittedly handsome:

But I prefer the original poster art; what do you think?

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Dog Days

Kelly Reichardt's Wendy and Lucy continues her hushed travelogues-of-despair set in Oregon, and I'm not without sympathy to Washington-based N.P. Thompson's weariness at seeing his beloved Pacific Northwest depicted repeatedly onscreen as "flat, banal and desiccated." (Hilariously, he describes the director as "borrowing liberally from.... the 'cinematic language' of Gus Van Sant, which is rather like Robin Hood stealing from the poor to give to the poor.") Nevertheless, this is Reichardt's party and she can cry if she wants to -- though, for better or worse, she's not the kind of filmmaker who wallows in overt emotion. Her protagonist, Wendy (Michelle Williams), is a twentysomething drifter whose car stalls in a small Oregon town while en route to Alaska, where she hopes to make some money. Getting caught shoplifting a few cans of Iams for her labrador retriever, Lucy, she's temporarily thrown in the slammer, then spends the rest of the film looking for her missing dog.

There's a lot that bugs me about Reichardt. She's unsubtly subtle, like a dissertation writer who narows the margins to pack tighter the text. All that blank space doesn't open up her ideas; they just crowd you, not allowing you room to think or her stories to breathe. Yet I'll be damned if Wendy and Lucy didn't get to me anyway, or more precisely Williams did. She's an actress who has snuck up on me in recent years, in works as varied as The Station Agent, Brokeback Mountain, and I'm Not There; and her versatility continues to shine here. Bereft of backstory, Williams still makes it clear that Wendy is damaged goods. She fills in the emotional gaps that Reichardt is too highbrow (or sloppy) to bother with -- namely, that it's Wendy's bond with Lucy that keeps her going, that brings out her resilience, that she loves and cares for her dog more than herself. Reichardt shows evidence of a good eye (the final passages of the film are visually haunting); and I admire her willingness to address a subject (economic despair) that few filmmakers bother with. I just wish she'd learn to do it without memorizing pages from the Indie Filmmakers Playbook. It's okay to give your audience something tangible to connect with now and then; there's no need to be coy. 


Were Kelly Reichardt to suddenly sign on to direct Transformers 3, it wouldn't be half as surprising for some as Oliver Stone's approach to W., his quasi-biopic about now-former President George W. Bush. Those bracing for (or anticipating) a high-octane multimedia hatchet-job were taken aback by the straightforward setups, the deeply intimate, seemingly sympathetic approach. Was this some kind of joke? In a way, yes. David Denby griped that the movie would have worked only if played as satirical comedy; but a comedy is what Stone has made, albeit a deadpan and quietly mournful one. It's right there in Condi Rice's subliminal whisperings in Tony Blair's ear to persuade the Prime Minister to support the war; in the brilliant insert of a corncob that Dubya steps on just before meeting Laura at a Texas cookout; during the war-cabinet walk on Bush's ranch that leads itself astray. In other moments, like Dick Cheney's semi-persuasive monologue on the need for invasion, the picture becomes deeply disquieting. 

Stone still has his share of dumb ideas (dream sequences, fantasy scenes), as well as the usual Daddy Issues that are, I suspect, his point-of-entry into this story. The combatively affectionate relationship between Bush Jr. and Sr. is predictable though well-played by Josh Brolin and James Cromwell. But Stone's smartest move was taking seriously Bush's religious convictions, proving that he understands what Pauline Kael once wrote about genuine fanatics being far more unsettling than charlatans. Stone visualizes this in striking ways -- the halo of light over Dubya's head as he prays in the war room on the eve of battle, or the series of closeups starting from Dubya's eye to the eye of a painting of Christ to finally tracking out of Bush Sr.'s iris. (The connection between [lower-case] father, son and spirit is complete in this stunningly edited sequence). Working with a tight budget, this is some of the best filmmaking of his career. And his way with actors remains inspired, similar to what Denby recently wrote about Hollywood Golden Age director Victor Fleming: that he "located and enlarged a set of defining traits -- a strain of feeling or humor -- in whomever he was working with." Brolin may be a boorish oaf in real life (run, Diane, run!) but onscreen -- unlike, say, Tim Robbins -- he conveys the dignity of even the most disreputable characters. Similarly, we see Thandie Newton's witty daring as Rice, Scott Glenn's cocky bravado as Rumsfeld, Toby Jones's smooth cunning as Karl Rove. Richard Dreyfuss claimed that Stone was a fascist on the set and I've no reason to doubt him (from what I hear, Dreyfuss is no peach himself), but as Cheney he gives his finest performance in years.
As one of W.'s few admirers when it was released last Fall, I think the film looks even stronger on a second viewing, with the anxiety of the previous election behind us. Free of overheated rhetoric, and as mischievously unassuming as that red-dot period after the capital letter in the title (which the director said, with a chuckle, that he included to imply "danger"), Stone's film is a critical glimpse at a controversial figure that, despite its notoriously inarticulate subject, invites rather than discourages conversation.

Friday, May 22, 2009


Every Ron Howard movie, it's always the same. Thirty minutes in, I say to myself, "Gee, this isn't so bad"; followed an hour later by, "Lordy, this sucks." Call it consistency, the same holds true whether it's one of his hollow blockbusters or tony Oscar contenders -- such as, in the second instance, last year's Frost/Nixon. Based on Peter Morgan's acclaimed play and starring the same duo who appeared in it (Michael Sheen as David Frost, Frank Langella as Tricky Dick), at first the historical authenticity of the story appears to do for Howard what Apollo 13 accomplished -- to rein in his oft-misguided impulses to pump up the drama rather than let the narrative speak for itself. Morgan, also the highly regarded screenwriter (if less so by me) of The Last King of Scotland and The Queen, adapted his play here; and he once again proves himself to be an expert at plot structure and understanding of the different needs between stage and screen.

Where I part ways with Morgan lies in what has become his specialty -- picking a marginally interesting historical anecdote and magnifying it beyond its due. Frost/Nixon chronicles the series of interviews in 1977 between a callow British talk-show host whose fame had passed and a recent American President who had resigned in disgrace, and the discussions offered their viewership some revealing moments of character nonetheless hardly shocking in terms of the facts behind the topics (Vietnam, Watergate, et al). Howard must have sensed this, which explains why hoary cliches begin popping up like welts within what is presented as docudrama. I had a moment's pause when it became evident that the remarkable Rebecca Hall (Vicky Cristina Barcelona) would be given nothing to do as Frost's eye-candy love interest. Then Sam Rockwell comes barnstorming in as the American journalist -- and one of Frost's researchers -- James Reston, Jr., who lets it be known off the bat that he really hates Nixon and reminds us of this over and over again. (This suits Rockwell, whose acting style is to wrap himself around one tic and squeeze it dry.)

But the real kicker is that Howard, perhaps still unable to let go of all those Oscars he expected for Cinderella Man, ultimately frames Morgan's verbal tete-a-tete as a heavyweight title bout between two underdogs, with Rockwell and Oliver Platt (amusing but underused as always) in Frost's corner and Kevin Bacon's hardcore conservative Jack Brennan advising his fallen president. Sheen barely registers as Frost, while Langella has some fun with Nixon's pettiness and cunning but isn't nearly as imaginative as Anthony Hopkins in Nixon or as hilarious as Dan Hedaya in Dick.

I keep wishing Ron Howard will decide to direct the upcoming Arrested Development movie (he served as executive producer and narrator for the TV series); prior to Apollo 13, his two best films were Splash and Night Shift, a pair of light and charming comedies that prove Howard once had a sure touch. Frost/Nixon moves faster and is more involving than the near-coma-inducing Da Vinci Code, yet it's every bit as impersonal. Even my hopes that this time the director would be forced to avoid his usual string of anticlimaxes (as if, unable to decide between six different endings, he shoots all of them) were dashed by an abysmal coda that I'll bet was nowhere near Morgan's original play or script. "The movie needs a more upbeat ending!" I can hear a studio head barking during a story conference. "The movie needs closure!" And then I envision Howard nodding his head, taking notes diligently. Perhaps because he's a nice guy. Or because, as a child of Hollywood, it's the only language he understands.  


I won't waste much energy panning Body of Lies, since it's evident that Ridley Scott barely spent any making it. What has happened to this once cutting-edge filmmaker to make his work come close to resembling the glossy oeuvre of his hack brother Tony? Even baby bro' made Spy Game -- a somewhat similar yet better movie than this one, with a surprisingly spry Robert Redford as opposed to a 'tater-talkin' Russell Crowe -- whereas Ridley demonstrates here he's as clueless about terrorism as the heroin trade in his previous, hideous American Gangster. Scott's underrated Kingdom of Heaven had a keener understanding of the complexities between the West and Middle East; and although Orlando Bloom was typically mocked for his lead performance as a crusading knight in that picture, Leonardo DiCaprio is considerably less convincing as a hard-boiled CIA agent in Lies. There's still something playacting about DiCaprio that all his hard work, scruffy beards and furrowed brows can't yet conceal. He huffs and puffs and dashes into public squares with guns-a-blazin', while Crowe, as his handler back in the States, drawls lazily and barely lifts a finger. (Crowe and Scott must enjoy working together, considering how mediocre their collaborations have been. I'm mixed about their next feature, Robin Hood: tired of the subject matter, yet intrigued that it seems to have a middle-aged spin, like Richard Lester's 1976 Robin and Marian with Sean Connery and Audrey Hepburn. In the age of Tiger Beat Star Trek, that's a ballsy move.) DiCaprio and Crowe cancel each other out, leaving Mark Strong, as the obligatory morally ambiguous Jordanian security chief who leaves you guessing (but not really) as to where his sympathies lie, as the only performer who makes an impression.

Despite its feints for topicality, Body of Lies is, like Frost/Nixon, most comfortable in the realm of cliche. It's the kind of movie where the hero's girl is kidnapped, then said hero is tortured gruesomely, but not nearly as gruesomely as he would be in real life, then the villain sneers "Do you think the cavalry is going to arrive in time to save you?" five minutes before they do exactly that. All great filmmakers have their misfires, but Ridley the Visionary (Blade Runner, Alien) and even Ridley the Idiosyncratic (Thelma & Louise, Matchstick Men) has become something I'd have once thought impossible: Ridley the Irrelevant.

Monday, May 18, 2009

To Go Blandly

So we have a young hero who never knew his father, a mad-dog villain who prefers black, a saloon with an interplanetary clientele, an ice planet with killer beasties, an out-of-nowhere last-minute appearance by the good guys' starship to save the day, and a lavish medal ceremony to wrap things up. Is it just me, or is this remake of the Star Wars Trek franchise a tad on the nose?

Actually, J. J. Abrams has more going for him than George Lucas nowadays -- namely a refreshing interest in human beings, or at least those who look like supermodels. (All the better to further the human race.) Like Joss Whedon, he has a knack for both character and story, for summing up an individual or a situation with as little exposition as possible; and these traits work fairly well for at least the first act of the new Star Trek, when we meet icons Kirk (Chris Pine), Spock (Zachary Quinto), McCoy (Karl Urban), Sulu (John Cho), and Chekov (Anton Yelchin) in younger, greener days. The workable screenplay, by Robert Orci & Alex Kurtzman (who wrote several Alias episodes together), sets up the impulsive Kirk and hyperrational Spock as rivals who become friends; and Pine and Quinto play their roles with enjoyable relish, particularly in the film's funniest scene, when Kirk shrugs off a simulated attack scenario designed by Spock to scare him.

There is, unfortunately, an excess of silliness here and there (e.g., Kirk's allergic reaction to one of McCoy's injections), and a misguided insecurity about holding still long enough for anything to register. The Shatnerfied Star Trek tipped so far into contemplative inertia I'm not sure I ever sat through an entire episode. (My grad-school roommate was a fan of Next Generation and so I probably watched most of its episodes, finding them a mix of the diverting and the doldrums.) This is the ADD version, shot on slash-and-blur digital video, and the action scenes suffer as a result.

But the most consequential aspect of Abrams' style is, unlike Whedon, he falls short in striving for myth. The mind-bending plot involves an obligatory black hole from which the Romulan heavy (Eric Bana, resembling his breakout role in Chopper but still a vortex of charisma) proceeds to wreak havoc on the natural order of history. This alternate-reality scenario produces a few tingles (as when a familiar face from the original series appears), and the performers -- including the arrival of the great comic actor Simon Pegg as Scotty -- are ready for bear. But the movie gets balled up with too much busy-ness, the filmmakers botch some potentially resonant parallels (shouldn't it be Kirk the Younger attempting to collide with the Romulan ship, as did his father, rather than Spock?), and like this season's finale of Lost (a show Abrams created, though is no longer affiliated with), Star Trek finally loses its fizz.

Abrams has the mojo of a gifted director, and for the most part I liked his light touch (not to mention the sensation of leaving the theater under two hours). The "Rule of Sequels," however, poses a need for more -- not, God forbid, less.  It will be interesting to see where the new series take these characters, if this young troupe's range will be allowed to expand along with their paunch, and if together they come to understand that going boldly does mean going where Roddenberry, Lucas and others haven't gone before.

Sunday, May 17, 2009


I'm not sure whether I agree that one shot can ruin an entire movie, but certainly one bad scene is enough to spoil the fun. On the season finale of Lost, the moment came when Jack (Matthew Fox) tells Sawyer (Josh Holloway) that his reason for wanting to detonate a hydrogen bomb on the island -- which will theoretically stop "the incident" that will cause their plane to crash on the island and thereby change the future -- is so he can have a fresh start with Kate (Evangeline Lilly). Destiny needs to feel inevitable, and after five seasons this potential coupling doesn't even reach the remotely plausible. This piece of nonsense, and the overwrought fisticuffs that followed, seemed to further emphasize the clumsy editing and staging of this two-hour special. The creators of Lost have had a hot-streak with slam-bang season closures of late, and all the pieces seemed in place: Jack guiding his followers to the '77 Dharma test-site; Locke (Terry O'Quinn) leading his group to Jacob's statue in the near-present; with a wild-card team carrying a locker ominously-sized like a casket to the same place. Yet everything seemed off a beat, other than the as-always marvelous work of Holloway and Liz Mitchell, the latter of whom was alloted the explosive climactic moment. Lost, at its best, is still pulpy fun, and there was enough good stuff here to make me look forward to next year's final season. Still, when that nuke detonated and the screen turned to white, my mind couldn't help but drift to the season one climax of a certain 80s cop-spoof, and a voice hollering "Hammer!"

The dud teen comedy Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist also asks us to believe that its titular characters are meant to be together, but of the two only the raven-haired, preternaturally alert Kat Dennings brings her A-game. She's wonderful as band-groupie Norah; whereas Michael Cera, who has carved out something of a niche with his low-key style, is surprisingly charmless as Nick, a bass player way too distraught over the breakup with his skanky ex-girlfriend. Early in the picture, Nick tells Norah that he doesn't believe in labels, but what you see is all you get with this cast of one-note characters ("gay," "drunk," "skank," etc). Director Peter Sollett is going for one of those classic night-to-remember teen nostalgia comedies in the American Graffiti tradition -- crossed with some Cameron Crowe/Nick Hornby-esque passion for pop music -- and to be sure, his use of New York City settings is imaginative and alive, much more than anyone in the movie.

Having missed the theatrical run of The Wrestler, I had plenty of time to read all the accusations about the film's "predictable" plotting even by the many who liked it. All I detected was a keen subversion of the Rocky formula, with Mickey Rourke's Randy "The Ram" Robinson going through the tropes of a comeback marked by an undercurrent of despair. What keeps the despair percolating just below the surface is Rourke's gallows humor and Darren Aronofsky's refreshingly no-frills directing style. I hadn't been able to endure an Aronofsky film from start to finish prior to this one; but here he paints a bleak landscape without wallowing in it. Rourke never wallows. Self-deprecating but never self-pitying, middle-aged yet light on his feet, he hits some of the casual authenticity of Paul Newman's late period. One of the best scenes features a long tracking shot following Randy to a dismal job at a deli counter, with the faint sound of a cheering crowd from his wrestling career on the soundtrack. Those cheers become for real in the final go-for-it match, interpreted by some as a vindication of Randy's choices. Yet I remain haunted by the closing image, which seems less a leap into victory than death.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Walking on Air

It's easy to overpraise Man on Wire, last year's Best Documentary Oscar winner about Philipe Petit's 1974 tightrope act across the World Trade Center. Dubbed "the artistic crime of the century" (whatever the hell that means), Petit's crackpot feat has more significance now than it did then; and the director, James Marsh, smartly refrains from spelling out the more obvious points, opting instead for allusive visual and thematic motifs. The opening passages, shot in lustrous black-and-white, show a crew of shadowy figures driving a van around the Towers, intercut with maps and blueprints and various tools at their disposal. This sequence (and subsequent ones, where Petit and his team navigate guards and other obstacles on their way to the rooftop) has the giddy kick of a heist picture, yet we also see how these men with their creative impulses are the flip-side to the killers who brought down the Towers eight years ago. Petit, still alive and more than kicking, appears in both contemporary interviews and stock footage as an ingratiating narcissist, which is undoubtedly what prompted Armond White to dismiss the film as glorifying an "egotistical stunt." One could sum up most of White's criticism as precisely the same thing, only without the transcendent beauty of Petit's accomplishment. There's not a lot of depth to Man on Wire; what the movie does is fulfill a subconscious collective need to see the Towers again, and with that it aims not deep but high.

I was surprised by how much I liked Twilight, last Fall's teen Zeitgeist flick based on Stephenie Meyer's apparently popular novels (just to show how old I am), which I finally caught up with on DVD during a slow week without cable TV. Can't say the reasons for my enjoyment had anything to do with Robert Pattinson's performance as Edward Cullen, the hunk-a vampire stud reportedly the cause of much shrieking and garment-rending in theaters. (My first sight of Pattinson was as a presenter at the Academy Awards, where I was left wondering if his disconcertingly pale complexion was natural or part of a contract clause.) He's an awkward actor who nonetheless poses compellingly, and well-utilized by Catherine Hardwicke, a director with a knack for visual composition, fog-'n'-drizzle atmosphere and emotional directness. (Naturally, she won't be back for the sequel.) I dug her style particularly in the first half of the film, which establishes the angst of Kristen Stewart's heroine, Bella, a child of divorce who moves with her father to the amusingly named town of Forks, Washington. Neither of her parents are depicted as monsters, and her peers act like normal teenagers, which grounds the vampire element into reality. The best scenes may be warmed-over Buffy the Vampire Slayer without the laughs, but the erotic fervor is palpable. Even when the second half of Twilight descends into idiot-plot absurdity (a battle between Edward's family of "good" vampires" and a trio of human-eating bad ones), the intensely focused Stewart somehow makes it work. This, along with her wonderful performance in Adventureland, make her very much the young actress of the moment.

I suspect it may be coming across as tiresome to keep singing the praises of The Office, but I can't help myself. Right now the series is the best it's ever been, losing nary a step since the conclusion of the remarkable "Michael Scott Paper Company" story arc, which returned Michael, Pam and Ryan to the Dunder-Mifflin fold while still becoming a subtle game-changer in the dynamics between all the characters. This is the year that the writers finally hit the sweet-spot between Michael's brilliance and idiocy, and Steve Carell has fashioned the most aching portrayal of loneliness currently on TV. I can only urge you to check out the latest episode, "Cafe Disco," and marvel at the harmonious work of the show's ensemble (with the delightful addition of scene-stealer Ellie Kemper as dizzy new receptionist Erin) as well as the most warmhearted and blissfully funny twenty-two minutes you're likely to see in any current medium.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Watch This Space

Just returned from a trip -- a mix of business and pleasure -- to the fine middle-American city with the famous iconic structure above. Back to blogging soon.