Saturday, March 27, 2004

Spartan (David Mamet, 2004) 

In David Mamet's State and Main, there's a scene in which Alec Baldwin exits a car he has just crashed into a lamppost and remarks, "So, that happened." With that line, Mamet had, unwittingly or not, encapsulated his entire approach to filmmaking. Spartan, his latest effort, continues in the bare-bones Mamet tradition: the President's daughter has disappeared, apparently kidnapped, and those assigned the task of finding her (chief among them a special agent played by Val Kilmer) bat nary an eyelash before getting down to business.

Mamet's singular bluntness does bring with it one positive effect: any potential melodrama in the story is summarily kicked to the side as the plot twists come barreling through. Spartan is a refreshingly intellectual handling of an old-fashioned action movie plot; the film forces you to keep up with its pace, making no concessions to those unprepared for a more rigorous viewing experience. Mamet is still not a great director, but he's making strides with his technique, and Spartan marks the second consecutive Mamet movie to look like an actual movie -- the camera actually moves, shots have actually been composed, and someone (perhaps cinematographer Juan Ruiz Anchia) has actually taken care to make the film look nice. The newly-professional look of Mamet's work means that Spartan is slicker, smoother, and faster entertainment than anything we've seen from him before.

The flip side of this uncompromising efficiency, however, is that while I almost always find Mamet's films entertaining, I'm rarely affected by them emotionally, and Spartan is no different. The film is certainly swift enough to stave off boredom, but there's little room for most of the supporting characters to breathe, and their characterization rarely goes beyond merely seeming gruff (Ed O'Neill) or charismatic (Derek Luke). There are some interesting scenes between Kilmer and Kristen Bell (playing the kidnapped girl) near film's end, but they feel like they've been cut short, sacrificed to Mamet's worship of plot. And furthermore, with Iceman Kilmer in the lead, we do not easily empathize with the film's protagonist.

Even so, Mamet's coldness doesn't carry over to his dialogue, and fans of such will likely not be disappointed. Spartan is not a great film (I keep waiting for Mamet to make one), but it is invigorating, smart, and a whole lot of fun. B

Saturday, March 20, 2004

Starsky & Hutch (Todd Phillips, 2004) 

I'm not even rating it that highly, and I still think I may be slightly overrating Starsky & Hutch simply for being the first new film I've seen in 2004 that wasn't a chore to watch. It's not a great film, or even a very good one, but it's amiable, it's charming, and it has spirit; it's not the kind of movie you can easily hate.

Sure, the film repeats its "Weren't the 70's funny?" jokes long after they stopped being funny in and of themselves, and director Todd Phillips (Old School, Road Trip) still lacks any sense of when a scene needs to end, but one thing Phillips has demonstrated is the ability to get a likeable cast together and let them do their respective things without stifling them. So we've the good chemistry of Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson, Vince Vaughn once again very good as a cocky asshole, Juliette Lewis letting her airhead persona hang out, and best of all, Snoop Dogg taking charge of his scenes and providing the leading argument against rappers not panning out in the movies. Meanwhile, the plot contains some nonsense about a cocaine deal and trots out various buddy-cop tropes that it pretends to parody (while, of course, using every single one of them to further the story), and there's the frat-boy humor we've all come to expect out of Phillips (Wilson plays this well, I must admit), and I guess there's referencing to the original TV series, though I really wouldn't know where. In any event, Starsky & Hutch had enough small pleasures to not make me want to run out of the theater, and compared to the fare of the last three months, that's worth a mild recommendation. Furthermore, providing me with a classic, instantly quotable line like "I believe that was God, the greatest mack of them all" earns this disposable fluff at least a B-.

Saturday, March 06, 2004

New Films of 2004! 

That's right, for the first time . . . films of 2004 reviewed here. And it only took me until March to do it. Perhaps the reason for this delay is that most of these films suck. A warning: I'll be calling the writers out quite a lot here, and though I realize that meddling producers, directors, actors, and the like could be responsible for the script problems, I've got to blame someone, you know?

Along Came Polly (John Hamburg, 2004) - I don't care to relive much of Along Came Polly, which I found annoying from the very beginning, and only more so as it went on. Let's just say that I have a major aversion to "comedies" that labor for their humor by making a presumably intelligent character do incredibly stupid things (see: the centerpiece "bathroom scene" in the film) just so the writers can contrive embarrassing set-pieces best left to sitcoms on the WB network. Seriously, writers, if you don't care about the characters, don't bother crafting your film in the vein of something like Breakfast at Tiffany's, because I liked this movie much better when it was called that. D+

Torque (Joseph Kahn, 2004) - The title is a pretty good indication of what's wrong with Torque -- the physical phenomenon of torque doesn't play a very significant part in the movie, and it's clear that the word was only used because it sounds vaguely like something car mechanics would talk about, and motorcycles are kind of like cars, right? Following from that, if everyone in a movie makes vague pronouncements about being Tough and Cool and whatever, it's kind of like they actually are, right? And if a lot of slapdash, incomprehensible chase scenes are strung together with some talking in between, it's kind of like a real movie, right? Yeah, kind of. C-

The Butterfly Effect (Eric Bress & J. Mackye Gruber, 2004) - I'm of two minds about this one. One one hand, The Butterfly Effect is a really freaking stupid movie, piling on one ludicrous plot twist after another while sort of trying to justify it by saying something like "It's the Butterfly Effect! Chaos theory, dude," and also making the deadly mistake of casting Ashton Kutcher in the lead of a film that apparently wants to be serious. On the other hand, The Butterfly Effect is also one of the most perversely, morbidly funny films I've seen in a while: the disastrous effects of Ashton's attempts to rectify the timeline are progressively, increasingly hilarious. (Dude keeps getting punk'd, seriously.) Unfortunately, most of the film's entertainment value is not found in the vein that the filmmakers intended, and even though I'm a big believer in not questioning your fun when you can get it, The Butterfly Effect is still not a good movie. C

The Big Bounce (George Armitage. 2004) - The Big Bounce is certainly the most amiable and good-natured bad movie I've seen so far this year. Really, hanging around with Owen Wilson, Morgan Freeman, Charlie Sheen, Willie Nelson, and most shockingly, Harry Dean Stanton (geez, I thought that guy was dead or something) on the beaches of Hawaii for a little while is not such a bad deal. But it still seems like everyone involved with this film seemed to feel that hanging around in Hawaii was enough, and didn't bother thinking about story, plot, character, continuity, consistency, energy, or the feeling that any of this stuff is actually going anywhere at all. It could be enjoyable if you're in the right mood, I suppose, but I must report that seeing The Big Bounce at an 11 P.M. screening is not the wisest of choices. *snore* C

Miracle (Gavin O'Connor, 2004) - Miracle got off on the wrong foot during the opening credits, which have been pasted over a montage of just about every important American historical event of the 1970s, leading me to mumble under my breath, "Uh-oh." Gavin O'Connor gives in to Gary Ross syndrome, leading Miracle down the same path of pretension as Seabiscuit -- instead of making a film about the damn horse (or hockey team), it's about Curing American Depression and all that. This sports-as-cureall notion is one I simply can't get behind: sporting events do mean something to a lot of people (including me), but no one is pulled out of debt or given a job because a hockey team won a game, and let's not kid ourselves, right? Late in the film, Coach Herb Brooks comments on the media hoopla surrounding the 1980 U.S. Olympic Hockey Team, saying that he wishes it could just be about a hockey game. I'm inclined to agree.

Still, even if Miracle had been just about the hockey team, I doubt it would've been much better than average. The young fellows cast as the hockey players (according to O'Connor, cast as players first, actors second) do a pretty good job skating around, but show little aptitude for reading lines, while O'Connor directs with machine-like efficiency, but misses the little details that could've made the material sing: when Brooks' wife (Patricia Clarkson, wasted), for example, is shown being angry about a lack of attention, it's just a way of reminding us she still exists, not of involving her in the events or deepening her character. The one element that rises above the mediocrity is Kurt Russell as Coach Brooks, finding things missing from the script and rounding out the character better than the writer (Eric Guggenheim) bothered to do. Brooks, characterized as a near-lunatic workaholic struggling to maintain his humanity, is the vivid image that remains long after Miracle's formulaic sports-movie gears have turned and its competently-shot hockey games have ended (SPOILER: we won). C+

Eurotrip (Jeff Schaffer, 2003) - File Eurotrip in the "what did you expect?" category: it's pretty much exactly what it looks like -- nothing more, nothing less. A raunchy, deliberately-offensive teen comedy about four high school graduates who gallivant around Europe for some reason (I'm sure there was one in there somewhere), Eurotrip will likely be amusing to those who have never seen a movie of this sort in their lives, and who also never saw the film's trailer, which ruins just about every potentially funny scene. I suppose this also could have worked better with a more appealing cast, but Eurotrip seems to have been populated by the folks who just didn't have the chops for American Pie, God bless 'em. (Also, couldn't there have been more than one joke per country? I mean, we know Eastern Europe is poor and England has soccer hooligans -- how about something else, writers?) C

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