Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Coming up in October...

Hi everyone, I'd first like to apologize for posting those last two reviews so late in the month. At first, it was just hard for me to know what to even write about Burn After Reading, so I put the whole thing off, and didn't get around to both that and my Ghost Town review until just the other night. And I'm sorry.

So sorry, in fact, that I'm going to make it up to you by promising one post every day for the whole of October. Sick, right?

Here's how it's going to work: In celebration of Halloween, I'm going to try and watch one horror(ish) movie a day for the 31 days leading up to and including Halloween. I'm not going to tell you what they are just yet, because A) I haven't really made out a list yet, and B) where would be the fun in that? Of course, if you know me at all, you can probably guess what some of the movies might be. Some will be movies I've seen before, some will be new to me.

And I'm thinking that, just like with my "Seven Days of PIXAR" series, most of the posts will be more reflections on my memories with these movies rather than straight reviews. Of course, for the movies I have yet to see, those will certainly be reviews.

But for today, though, I'm enjoying the first of the many great movies Hollywood gave us this past summer:

Stay classy, internet.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Ghost Town (2008)

Ricky Gervais just can't seem to catch a break here in the States. Sure, the US version of The Office is one of the best shows on network TV right now, and he had bit parts in Night at the Museum and Stardust, but for the most part, Gervais is one of a number of British comedians for whom American stardom is still elusive.

Enter Ghost Town, a romantic comedy written and directed by Spielberg's go-to screenwriter David Koepp. The film, which has already fallen out of the Top Ten at the US Box Office, is a moderate success, if only for Gervais' quick witted delivery and the way he plays scenes opposite Greg Kinnear. As a straight comedy, this might have been a winner. As a romantic comedy, however, it's on shaky ground.

Bertram Pinkus (Gervais) is quite possibly the most bitter, disdainful person in all of New York City (and, I'm willing to bet, the world). He seems to be a successful dentist, but that's the only thing he's got going for him. After a near-death experience during a colonoscopy, Pinkus begins seeing strange people around town who only seem interested in following him around. These turn out to be ghosts. As the lead ghost, Frank (Kinnear), explains it, all these ghosts have unfinished business, and now that someone can see them, they're desperate for him to finish their business for them. Frank then cuts a deal with Pinkus: Stop Frank's wife (Tea Leoni) from marrying a complete jerk, and Frank will make the ghosts leave Pinkus alone.

You can imagine where things go from there. If not, shame on you. The second half of the movie plays out in typical rom-com style, but with a series of supernatural nudges that have all the subtlety of a jackhammer. After a very promising start, the movie quickly becomes a hybrid of Ghost and "Cyrano de Bergerac". For better or for worse, the only things keeping the film afloat are Ricky Gervais and Greg Kinnear. Koepp's script is very by-the-numbers in its approach, coming off more like a poor man's Stranger than Fiction (itself a poor man's Adaptation). Tea Leoni doesn't necessarily kill the movie, but she's clearly the weak link in the primary cast. As the love interest, Leoni is really given nothing more to than be pursued and then react. I fault the script rather than the actress.

Another thing that bothered me more than it should have was the rules regarding the ghosts in the film. Now, metaphysics probably isn't the thing to get hung up on in a romantic comedy, but every once in a while something strange would jump out at me and make me start asking questions. For instance, if there are this many ghosts wandering NYC, there must be millions like them roaming the Earth. Is this some kind of statement regarding society's general selfishness? As we come to learn in the film, it's the living who have the unfinished business. After all, the dead are dead, so what do they care? I guess what I'm saying is that the film raises questions that you know it'll never bother answering. This is something to be analyzed in greater detail elsewhere.

Also, for as many ghosts as we end up seeing in this film, Ghost Town paints New York City as a woefully empty place. Sure, Pinkus' world is meant to feel lonely and isolated, but when you set your movie in New York City, I expect to at least see people walking the sidewalks, traffic jams, long lines, anything to show the populace of the city at large. Aside from a small handful of lead characters, Pinkus' New York is a largely hollow place.

That's actually kinda how I feel about the movie. Good performances all around, but the final product exhibits an odd hollowness to it. In the hands of a better director/writer, Ghost Town might have been one of the better comedies to come out in several years. Instead, it seems content to settle for being mostly hilarious, yet modest in its ambition.

3 stars (***) out of five.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Burn After Reading (2008)

This review's been gestating in my brain for the better part of three weeks. When trying to discuss a film by the Coen brothers, it's always hard to figure out where to begin. There are so many tangential threads going on at any given time, even in their lesser films (see: The Ladykillers). One of the key things to remember when watching a Coen brothers movie is that these guys might as well be film scholars in their own right, because they know genre, story structure, and character arcs inside and out. So when they make a movie like Burn After Reading, it's important to understand that every fault, every little detail that might seem odd or out of place is entirely done on purpose.

The plot, such as it is, concerns a small army of characters motivated by personal gain. Central to this movie's tornado if strange circumstances is Osbourne Cox (John Malkovich), a former CIA agent who vindictively decides to write a tell-all memoir about his years 'observing the Balkans'. His wife (Tilda Swinton) thinks he's an idiot, and is cheating on him with Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney), a Treasury agent with a bit of a personality disorder. At the same time, Harry is cheating on her with Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand), a self-absorbed gym trainer who, along with dim-bulb coworker Chad (Brad Pitt), tries to blackmail Cox with a CD of his personal files.

If it sounds like a dumb plot, it is. There are three or four different stories going on here simultaneously, but the fun of Burn After Reading is watching the way in which each of these stories ends up colliding into another one. It takes the movie a good 15 minutes or so to really pick up steam, but once things get moving, it's a roller-coaster ride to a truly odd finale. In fact, if you study this film next to other Coen films, like Fargo or No Country for Old Men, the ending is about the same. Meaning: each of these films wrap up their stories in such a way that one has to ask: does anyone truly come out ahead?

As is the case in most every Coen film, the cast is largely well chosen. The only one who feels at all out of place is Tilda Swinton, though she apparently was the only major player whose character wasn't written specifically for her. Clooney plays the fool here, just like he does in Intolerable Cruelty and O Brother Where Art Thou?, though he does go a little further over the top. Frances McDormand shines, just like she does in Fargo. The real treats here are John Malkovich and Brad Pitt. Malkovich plays Cox with the kind of misplaced anger that really makes him a fun villain (as villainous as he can possibly be here), and Pitt makes Chad such an idiot, that you really end up missing him once he exits the film.

Overall, Burn After Reading is a truly odd take on the whole spy thriller genre that's been taking the country by storm. It works as a parody of our Me-First mentality the same way No Country for Old Men examined the ideas of evil, justice, etc. The story itself does feel a tad unfinished, as evidenced by the final monologue from a CIA official played by J.K. Simmons. It's a fun 90 minutes with Joel and Ethan, and your enjoyment of the film depends entirely upon how much you enjoy the way these two tell stories. Personally, movies like Burn After Reading are right up my alley. It won't sweep up any awards, but it's definitely a fun movie I look forward to seeing again on DVD.

3.5 stars (***1/2) out of five.