Friday, September 26, 2008

Burn After Reading

“Burn After Reading

USA. 2008. Written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen. Starring: George Clooney, Frances McDormand, John Malkovich, Tilda Swinton, Brad Pitt, Richard Jenkins, David Rasche, J.K. Simmons, Pun Bandhu, Olek Krupa, Michael Countryman, Kevin Sussman, J.R. Horne, Hamilton Clancy and Armand Schultz.

Rating: ★★★

Now that they have properly bounced back from a past string of timid failures with last year’s Oscar®-winning No Country for Old Men, the Coen brothers return with their film, Burn After Reading, to one of their old favorite subjects: comically dimwitted screw-ups with deadly possibilities. When they know what they are doing and keep their smirks and winks in check just enough to properly and sincerely define their characters, the duo can provide uproarious laughs out of perpetual idiocy. Using the characters’ idiocy, they also take their trademark gleeful, satirical potshots at a particular genre; this time, the spy and espionage thriller.

The movie, after the opening credits that display the genre staple of red digital readouts with the requisite sound effects, begins with John Malkovich as Osborne Cox, an alcoholic CIA operative being informed that he is now demoted (I certainly would hate to be the man having to demote or fire John Malkovich). He in turn decides to retire early to write his own memoir, much to the chagrin of his icily witchy wife, Katie (Tilda Swinton). She, however, has already been thinking of leaving him anyway as she is having an affair with federal marshal Henry Pfarrer (George Clooney).

For an ex-CIA agent, Osborne is, like most every other character in the movie, too dim to detect that while Katie does not realize that the already married Pfarrer can never really be faithful to anyone. But what really set off Osborne and the main plot are two exercise trainers, Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand) and Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt). The latter has apparently found the CD that contains Osborne’s work thus far on his memoir, and he and Linda figure they could try to get money from Osborne in exchange for the CD in order to pay for Linda’s plastic surgery. Osborne, of course, can hardly take this kind of blackmail that Chad flippantly describes as “being a good Samaritan” until he lands a punch at him and Chad and Linda decide to seek other unwise (really, moronic) ways to use the CD, including getting the Russians involved.

The screwball plot gets much more complicated than that as the Coen brothers can often do with the back of their hands while giving their films a highly polished look (this time, being almost brightly garish, working for the first time with cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki). But they also handle the material here with a measure of sincerity in their dark comedy to prevent it from being just another detached, smirking five-finger exercise, which had been the case with their past screwy comedies like The Ladykillers, Intolerable Cruelty and The Hudsucker Proxy. Good comedy, no matter how silly or bizarre, most always requires a nugget of humanity that we can understand, if not identify with, and we see it when the first shot of Linda is of a doctor pinching her extra aging fat on her waist, thighs and legs (which is certainly bold of McDormand or perhaps the body double) and how she wants to rid herself of it to continue running the gym.

We also see it in how the A-list actors (most of whom are taking nice breather roles from serious movies) really comically commit to the myopic madness of their characters, much like Jeff Bridges did with the slacker Dude in The Big Lebowski. Pitt in particular is very funny as the purest, most eccentric Coen character, an iPod-obsessed gym instructor who, when Osborne threatens him saying, “Your empty little head will be spinning faster than the wheels of your Schwinn bicycle,” can only glee that he recognized the bike was a Schwinn. As for Coens regular, Frances McDormand, she wonderfully plays the sincere catalyst of the plot with some of the same relentlessly chirpy attitude of her state trooper character, Marge Gunderson in the great Fargo (though, of course, she hardly has the capacity to see the big picture).

Meanwhile, on the other side, from the moment we see John Malkovich’s misanthropic hothead character, we sense that violence will erupt and punctuate the comedy at some point. Swinton, as his wife, could actually literally be called a hothead with her flame-shaped hairdo though she is far steelier and icier in her demeanor (which she probably had to be to stay married somehow to Osborne). Clooney, on the other hand, gets to utter the latest weirdo phrase from the Coens, “lactose reflex” in role three of his unofficial “idiot trilogy” that started with O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Intolerable Cruelty. There are also David Rasche as Osborne’s CIA superior and J.K. Simmons as his agency boss who get some of the movie’s best punch lines, which I will not spoil, and are hilarious in the closing scene precisely because they are the wrong people asking the right questions (although it does seem to come a little abruptly).

Burn After Reading is enjoyable but probably minor fare for the Coen brothers, much like The Big Lebowski was their more “playful” follow-up to their transcendent masterpiece, Fargo. But it is interesting to see them turn over a genre inside out by seeing what idiotic characters would do in much of the same situations. Just as they thought up throwing the ultimate slacker, The Dude in the middle of a kidnapping scheme, I can almost picture the brothers picking up genre conventions and thinking, “What would a dimwit do?”

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Righteous Kill

“Righteous Kill”

USA. 2008. Directed by Jon Avnet. Written by Russell Gewirtz. Starring: Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson, Carla Gugino, John Leguizamo, Donnie Wahlberg, Brian Dennehy, Trilby Glover, Alan Rosenberg, Saidah Arrika, Sterling K. Brown, Barry Primus, Melissa Leo and Alan Blumenfield.

Rating: ★★

Back in 1995 when Michael Mann decided to pair Robert De Niro and Al Pacino in his crime epic, Heat, he was fully aware of the legendary status of his two main actors. That is why he smartly used their great talents to delve deeper into the motivations and impulses that drive the cops and criminals to do their profession and how one side almost needs the other to make up their own sealed universe. The two veteran actors’ latest pairing, Righteous Kill sadly only starts seeming to be about the personalities and motivations until it settles for a mere whodunit.

In other words, like last winter’s disappointing The Bucket List, which coupled Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman for the first time, this is a film that just tries to glide on the two thespians’ personas rather than expanding on them. Having the two veterans as world-weary cop partners could yield a greater examination of the lifelong frustration with the crime-ridden streets and a justice system that often cannot rectify them. The screenplay by Russell Gewirtz (who previously penned the overrated Inside Man) and the direction from Jon Avnet (who directed Al Pacino in the bomb, 88 Minutes this year) are alas never that ambitious.

There is, of course, the pleasure of watching De Niro and Pacino playing, respectively, Turk and Rooster, cops whom others in the police force deem inseparable like Lennon and McCartney. They deal day in and day out with trying to clean out the scum of the streets, although they are far from clean themselves as they occasionally break the rules of police work such as planting evidence on an acquitted criminal and framing him for another. Their boss, Lieutenant Hingis (Brian Dennehy) seems to overlook much of that, although he has ordered them to see a police psychiatrist after their recent police brutality towards drug dealer, Spider (Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson).

They are particularly dismayed when they witness the acquittal of a child rapist and murderer who has gotten away scot-free. The very next day, however, the two cops find that he has been murdered. Soon thereafter they encounter a slew of murders of other criminals and low-lifes, always with the same silenced gun and a rhyming poem left nearby. While working with younger fellow detectives on the case, Karen Corelli (Carla Gugino), Simon Perez (John Leguizamo) and Ted Riley (Donnie Wahlberg) as well as facing animosity from the latter two, the two veteran cops try to figure out who may be the culprit, all while the other cops start pointing fingers at Turk.

Considering the movie opens with what looks like a taped confession spoken directly to the camera (much like the opening narration from Clive Owen in Inside Man) and that Pacino’s character surmises that it is a cop committing these serial killings, I personally wished the story could have delved into a deeper, more psychological examination of a police officer who is pushed to the extremes of vigilantism due to their frustrating incapacity to put enough dirty criminals behind bars. Then at least it would not be a detriment that I could already guess the ending just from one rather gimmicky telltale sign of the opening sequence. The screenplay contorts to throw in red herrings whenever it can (as well as some rather creepily kinky scenes involving Gugino’s penchant for liking it rough with De Niro’s Turk) but its foreshadowing is all too obvious in its execution. And since there is almost never an unnecessary character in most any thriller like this, finding the killer is just another exercise akin to counting the people down in Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, something I am now getting tired and bored of in thrillers.

Because the movie has somehow assembled a mostly top-flight cast, it serves as a good, contra-positive example of how, despite that the acting is often the last thing to go wrong, most any good movie really starts from the written word. Needless to say, De Niro and Pacino have a watchable on-screen chemistry exchanging the often vulgar wisecrack dialogue and banter after having played numerous past cop roles (as well as criminals) that many real cops may have likely patterned their behavior after. On the other hand, everyone here including Leguizamo and Dennehy is acting within their comfortable niche (except for Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson who really needs to take acting lessons to carve out his niche) and so there is nothing that is challenging the thespians or the viewers.

Righteous Kill marks just the third movie that puts De Niro and Pacino together (although the first one in 1974, The Godfather, Part II may not really count since their respective father and son portrayals were not even in the same time frame) and the first one in which they actually share the screen throughout the whole movie. The filmmakers sadly cannot even fully utilize this thespian arsenal as well as Michael Mann did in just the two great, memorable scenes he allowed the veterans to share in Heat (and no one can forget that coffee shop scene in which the cop and robber called a truce to talk in length about what drives their lines of work). Much is being said about how Hollywood is running out of ideas these days and one sign of that may be in movies like Righteous Kill, which merely ape off our knowledge and memories of living screen legends rather than coming up with fresh, creative directions for their considerable skills.

Monday, September 15, 2008

The Hottie & the Nottie

“The Hottie & the Nottie”

USA. 2008. Directed by Tom Putnam. Written by Heidi Ferrer. Starring: Paris Hilton, Christine Lakin, Joel David Moore, Johann Urb, Adam Kulbersh, The Greg Wilson, Marianne Muellerleile, Kathryn Fiore, Morgan Rusler, Erin Cardillo, Kayley Scott Collins, Caleb Guss, Kurt Doss and Alessandra Daniele.

Rating: 0 stars (and that's being nice)

The Hottie and the Nottie is an entity so horribly incompetent and abysmally inept that it makes you actually feel sorry for putting down 99% of the other painfully bad movies you may have derided in the past. Most bad, even unwatchable movies have at least some remnants of evidence that define themselves as a “movie.” To even call this project a “movie” and see the fact that some studio executive actually paid money to put it on celluloid instead of donating to charity make me cringe.

In general, I personally try not to judge a thespian on screen based on how messed up or hated his or her off-screen persona may be. So I watched the movie with every ounce of charity within myself to see whether Paris Hilton had an iota of talent on the screen. After watching this disaster, my charity for watching her as well as for writer Heidi Ferrer and director Tom Putnam is completely spent. There are plenty of other struggling actresses who can at least play a human being with a semblance of a real personality on screen and the so-called filmmakers know no shame for catering down to Hilton’s nadir of acting and creating a role like this for any actor of any caliber.

The story (if you can even call in that) centers around how Hilton’s character, Christabel Abbott is supposed to be the most adored beauty in all of L.A. Men literally drool over her while she goes jogging on the beach while the camera pants along with them like a dog in slow motion. One of those guys is Nate Cooper (Joel David Moore), a relentlessly nerve-grating low-life who has just gotten dumped by his girlfriend (how does he manage to find a girlfriend anyway?) after singing a “love” song based on all the things she has annoyed him with on his guitar (which he gets deservedly smacked with). The reason: He believes he has been in love with Christabel since they were in first grade and thus moves to L.A. to be with her after creepily sniffing her out while she is jogging. Unfortunately, for him, as the title suggests, she has vowed herself to never dating until her friend, the supposed “Nottie,” June Phigg (Christine Lakin) finds a special someone who can look past the warts, pimples and excessive hair on her face and legs.

Does this sound like a premise that should be made into a feature film? There are many things that insult and annoy in this from the indolent acting and direction to the idiotic, humorless writing but the most insulting is in how it thinks any guy would even get close to Hilton’s shallow, almost zombie-like quality of having no trace of a human trait and think she is actually “hot.” Even her face stays stiff like a mannequin and just looks consistently exhausted (probably because she is so straining to act). At least there is a tiny smidgen of wit in Lakin’s June and even the average Joe would see that she is donning a makeup job so horribly fake that it would shame even the lowest-rent Elementary School Theater. Wait, I take that insult to Elementary School Theater back actually, since the smartest people in this whole project are the 6-year old versions of the central characters who become these unfunny dimwits after the first two minutes.

Then, just when one thinks the movie cannot get any worse, the story practically redefines the lows of superficiality with the entrance of a plastic surgeon character, Johann Wulrich (Johann Urb). Nate, in all of his infinite wisdom, thinks Johann is supposed to be competition for Christabel until he starts to think that June is not looking so bad either. But, of course, the filmmakers, in all of their infinite depth, decide not to show that change until the plastic surgeon gives her a makeover surgically removing her fungal moles and warts (though, since the makeup looks so bad, I just wished someone would give her a large ball of wax to do the job). Need I say more about the depressingly witless hypocrisy with which the filmmakers deliver their happy ending (not to mention a plastic surgeon also falling for his patient is a bit creepy)?

Have I revealed too much? Remember I said that this was not worthy of being called a movie? Because of that, I am almost ashamed that I actually maintained my policy of sitting through every movie to the end instead of cutting out somewhere in between the 91 minutes of this thing. A movie is not what those behind this project have done. The Hottie and the Nottie is strictly an act of cinematic carnage that is committed, not made, by people who will need the rest of their careers to atone and recuperate (or maybe even seriously think about choosing another career) and one Paris Hilton who should realize that she would seriously get more love from the public if she does the most honorable thing of quitting acting altogether.