Monday, September 22, 2008


A BRONX TALE (****) is a film that I've seen countless times, and I am sure there will be more viewings in the future. It's perfect, really. Serving as DeNiro's directorial debut, this film was released in the early 90's, and is based on Chazz Paliminteri's one-man stage show about a young boy named Calogero (nicknamed "C") growing up in the Bronx during the 50's and 60's. His father, played by DeNiro, is an honest, hard-working bus driver who wants nothing but the best for his son. C's life is forever changed when one day, while sitting on the stoop to his apartment building, we watches as local gangster Sonny (Paliminteri) shoots a man dead in the street. When the cops as C to identify the killer, he doesn't turn Sonny in; he ain't a rat. What develops is an uneasy father-son story, except C's got two fathers -- his real father, teaching him decent values, and Sonny, giving him a study in crime. DeNiro got the film made with the help of Marty Scorsese, and their frequent collaborations clearly rubbed off on DeNiro the director. There is an Italian-soaked authenticity to everything in this wonderful, sad, and uplifting film. The entire cast is superb, and the mafia character actors are all sublime. The 50's and 60's were dangerous in the mean streets of the Bronx, and DeNiro and Paliminteri don't shy away from some of the more painful race relations that were bubbling to the surface during that time. It's a vibrant, colorful, violent film, with a final 20 minutes that really packs an emotional punch. DeNiro has only directed two films, this one, and the supremely underrated birth-of-the-CIA epic THE GOOD SHEPHERD. I hope he continues to work as a director in the future.

David Mamet's REDBELT (***) is typical Mamet. Staccato, often impenetrable dialogue. Manly codes of ethics. A con or two thrown into the plot. Enough characters to choke a horse. And a narrative worthy of two or three separate thrillers. The neat trick while watching a Mamet film is waiting to see how he's gonna bring all of his storytelling strands together. He might have bit off more than he could chew in the end with REDBELT, but that doesn't make it any less entertaining and crafty. Chiwetel Eijofor is Mike, a Los Angeles jujitsu instructor who is about to lose his dojo. He gets caught up in a tangled web of intrigue by a down-and-out actor (Tim Allen), Allen's sleazy manager (Joe Mantegna), a shady fight promoter (Ricky Jay), and a random stranger (Emily Mortimer). Mike has one rule: he'll never fight in a competition or for money. Wanna bet if he'll be able to keep to his personal mores? Mamet is a filmmaker interested in character first, and action second. He's always been a better writer than director, and in REDBELT, he seems to lose control a bit towards the end. Unlike his last film, SPARTAN, which is his best as director, Mamet seems unsure of how to end his flick around the 3/4 mark. But then, like any good magician, he pulls out an ace from his sleeve, and shows you a final act of deception before the end credits roll. The acting is all solid, Bob Elswit's unshowy camerawork is crisp, and the dialogue crackles with irony and dark humor. It's always fun being in the grips of a master manipulator like Mamet.

OPEN HEARTS (****) is yet another emotionally draining but superb melodrama from Danish director Susanne Bier. Bier, who has made nothing but great films (THINGS WE LOST IN THE FIRE, AFTER THE WEDDING, BROTHERS), made OPEN HEARTS while subscribing to the Dogme 95 aesthetic, which essentially means no artificial lights, all hand-held camera work, no effects or music, no extraneous props; basically, nothing you'd find in Hollywood. The results are raw and piercing. This is the sad but illuminating story of a young couple struck by tragedy. Cecile and Joachim are about to get married, when, in a moment of sheer bad luck, Joachim is hit by a car, and paralyzed from the neck down. Devastated, Cecile seeks comfort in the form of Joachim's doctor, the married Niels. The catch is, it's the doctor's wife, Marie, who was driving the car that hit Joachim. The film is tough to watch at times, as Joachim grows to resent Cecile while he recuperates in the hospital, and Cecile develops a heartbreaking relationship with Niels. If it sounds like I wanted to put a gun in my mouth after watching OPEN HEARTS, well, I'm not saying that exactly. This is a film that wants the audience to confront their fears of losing someone that they love, and it paints a realistic portrait of lives that can never be untangled from one another. Mads Mikkelsen, who plays Niels, has been in a few of Bier's films, and the two of them have a terrific actor-director rapport. This is an engrossing, sexy, and deeply human film, one that you won't forget if you can deal with intense dramatics.

If light, whimsical, and cute is what you're after, look no further than SON OF RAMBOW (***), and entertaining British picture from the creative team of Hammer and Tongs (DA ALI G SHOW, THE HITCHIKERS GUIDE TO THE GALAXY). This is the story of two lonely boys who become unlikely friends during the summer of 1982. One of them, Will, lives oppressively with his religious freak mother, where he's not allowed to watch TV and told to keep away from all of the other kids at school. Will ends up crossing paths with the school bully, Lee, who makes pirated copies of RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD. What would happen if an 11 year old, with zero interaction with movies or television, were to see a movie like FIRST BLOOD? Well, if they were as creative as Will, they'd grab their own video camera and make their own version of it. So that's what Will and Lee do. This is a creative, subversive, and very stylish coming-of-age dramedy that hits a few poignant moments, and offers some big laughs. It's also a little slow, with pacing that sags in the mid-section, but it's still a solid piece of light entertainment that demonstrates a real love for movies, moviemaking, and the power of the filmed image to inspire the minds of young boys. I really enjoyed watching this flick.

Zak Penn's THE GRAND (***) isn't as funny or sharp as his last mockumentary (INCIDENT AT LOCH NESS) and it's not up to par with the films that it wants to sit right next too (BEST IN SHOW, A MIGHTY WIND), but it's a fun little comedy nonetheless. A ridiculous cast of comedians and characters populate this asinine, semi-improvised poker comedy; along for the zany ride is Woody Harrelson, Ray Romano, Cheryl Hines, Richard Kind, Werner Herzog, David Cross, Mike Epps, Dennis Farina, Chris Parnell, Judy Greer, and Michael McKean. The plot, if that term really applies to this free-wheeling slice of idiocy, concerns Harrelson, a drugged-out has-been poker player, trying to take back an in-the-family casino from McKean during a big-time poker showdown. Some of the material is extremely funny; some of it isn't all that amusing. But one thing's for sure: You'll never see Herzog like this anywhere else, or probably, ever again. He's blisteringly funny as a card shark named, appropriately, "German," who lugs around small pets (cats, mice, guinea pigs, rabbits) and is frequently shot in slow-motion with gangster rap playing in the background. The film stinks of a friendly, "we're all just joking around" atmosphere amongst all the actors, and a little discipline might've resulted in a better film. But it's a fun movie to thrown on, tune into, and forget about the next morning.

AN AMERICAN CRIME (**1/2) was a very hard movie to watch. A true-life tale of a deranged woman (Catherine Keener) who took in multiple children as boarders in her Ohio town in the 60's, the film is perched between real-life crime procedural, and icky torture exploitation. Ellen Page is Keener's object of obsession, and the two actresses certainly bring their A-game to the film. The problem is that director Tommy O'Haver doesn't have a firm grasp on what sort of film he's trying to make: Is this a court room drama or a horror film? He tries for both, and the results are mixed. The performances are all well-honed and professional, and in the case of Keener, excellent. But the material is so repellent, and the outcome so unpleasant, that the film stinks of desperation on the part of the filmmakers to turn a heinous act into a piece of pseudo-entertainment. A much better film, like David Fincher's masterpiece ZODIAC, took a series of real life murders, and wove them into a compelling, journalistic ride through police and investigative work. AN AMERICAN CRIME works well enough, but not well enough to outright recommend to the casual movie watcher.

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