Wednesday, May 21, 2014

The King of Comedy

THE KING OF COMEDY (Martin Scorsese, 1982)

Ray Charles sings “Come Rain or Come Shine” over the opening credits of THE KING OF COMEDY, but in the context of this dark comedy the singer’s promise to love the listener as no one ever has sounds more like a threat. It certainly is later in the film when Masha (Sandra Bernhard), who helps aspiring comedian Rupert Pupkin (Robert De Niro) kidnap a late night talk show host, warbles it to the celebrity held captive in her townhouse. Passion can just as easily be indicative of derangement as deep affection.

34-year-old Rupert is among the crowd of autograph hounds and gawkers that hangs outside the the exit of the late night network talk show Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis) hosts. Rupert isn’t so much interested in obtaining a signature as he is in bending the ear of his idol and convincing him to book the unknown talent on the show. One night he helps to push the adoring mob away from Jerry and slips into his car along with him. Jerry is gracious enough to humor his intense fan’s wish to talk with him, which leads Rupert to believe he’s so very close to becoming his industry equal.

Emboldened by his brief chat with Jerry, Rupert goes about arranging the remainder of what he needs for his rapid rise to the top. He asks out Rita (Diahnne Abbott), the high school crush he could never ask out until now, and envisions her becoming his bride in a nationally televised ceremony. He hounds the patient receptionist and production staff at Jerry’s show thinking that his showcase slot is a formality that hasn’t yet been finalized. When Rupert’s fantasies face resistance by reality, he enlists fellow obsessive Masha to abduct Jerry and then uses knowledge of the host’s whereabouts as leverage to get time to perform his act on the show.

Director Martin Scorsese depicts Rupert’s delusions so that there is often initial confusion in scenes between what is happening in the material world and what takes place in his mind. His three-piece suits and heavily rehearsed behavior--he’s never not “on”--obscure the pathology behind his striving. Rupert is so convinced of his imminent success that in his basement he has cardboard cutouts of famous folks and a studio audience with whom he can regale with his jokes and anecdotes on the talk show circuit. He’s even practiced his autograph. There’s not a question in his mind of if he’ll make it but when.

At this point in his career De Niro could be seen as a dangerous screen presence, but the intimidation emanating from him as Rupert is psychological than physical. He nails the way someone who is overly familiar and misinterprets social niceties can be unnerving. De Niro plays Rupert as though he’s living in an everlasting lucid dream in which he can tailor actual circumstances according to the vivid reality in his head. Eventually Rupert takes more aggressive actions to put imagination and existence in agreement, but before then he still has an unsettling quality because he’s oblivious to accepted standards of conduct.

The barriers to fame are lower now than they were when THE KING OF COMEDY was made, but Paul D. Zimmerman’s screenplay anticipates how notoriety alone is often spun into prominence in the media and public gazes. Rupert’s statement that it’s “better to be king for a night than schmuck for a lifetime” sounds like a guiding aphorism for those willing to demean themselves for a brief time in the spotlight than to suffer obscurity, the worst of fates. THE KING OF COMEDY is an uncomfortably funny film not because Rupert’s desire to make everyone stand up and notice him is so foreign but because it’s recognizable, even to those would never go to his lengths to achieve everyone’s attention.

Grade: A

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Million Dollar Arm

MILLION DOLLAR ARM (Craig Gillespie, 2014)

After three years since striking out on their own Los Angeles-based sports agent J.B. Bernstein (Jon Hamm) and his business partner Ash (Aasif Mandvi) are struggling mightily to stay in the game. Although they’re wooing a professional football player to sign on with Seven Figures Management, he seems likely to commit to their competition. For their last best chance to stay in business J.B. proposes to find the hardest and most accurate throwing cricket bowlers in India in a televised contest called The Million Dollar Arm. The top two finishers will be brought to the United States to be converted into baseball pitchers. If all goes well, the prospects will be offered Major League Baseball contracts and put J.B. first in line to lock up talent in a huge country where no one else is looking.

J.B.’s time in India doesn’t go exactly as planned--the winning athletes throw the javelin and play field hockey rather than being experienced at cricket--but he leaves with lanky lefty Rinku (Suraj Sharma) and right-handed Dinesh (Madhur Mittal) ready to be molded and Amit (Pitobash), an eager, baseball-loving assistant who can translate between the Americans and Indians. Although J.B. wanted a one-year timeline, his investor demands six months for pitching coach Tom House (Bill Paxton) to work wonders before a pro tryout.

MILLION DOLLAR ARM opens with J.B. practicing his pitch to a football player he hopes will become his client. Director Craig Gillespie’s film plays as though it’s also trying to persuade us to buy into the vision of a potential emerging market for American professional sports. Based on a true story, MILLION DOLLAR ARM feels like the next step in the public relations campaign for the agent and Major League Baseball. Hello India, we’d love to have you become fans of our product, and if you can supply a player or two to our teams, all the better.

The well-executed formula is Nutrasweet to Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s SUGAR, a fictional drama which followed a Dominican Republic prospect and the culture clash he faces when coming to the United States to play in the minor leagues. MILLION DOLLAR ARM is more about the agent, which can leave something of a bitter aftertaste in treating these Indian athletes as exotic totems collected on the American’s path to personal betterment, but the film’s second half improves at conveying their struggles in adjusting to a new land and profession. It also helps that Hamm, although not in full-blown Don Draper mode, comes off as persuasive and indifferent to those he is relying on to maintain his financial position. J.B.’s sharper edges have been sanded down, but Gillespie and screenwriter Tom McCarthy don’t ignore them entirely.

Although MILLION DOLLAR ARM isn’t like the masala films India produces, it mixes a little bit of almost everything into a satisfying whole. As a sports drama it demonstrates knowledge of its subject. Rinku and Dinesh aren’t presented as surefire all-stars in the making. They may light up the radar guns, yet their feats are typical for anyone trying to make it in MLB. Light comedy keeps MILLION DOLLAR ARM from drooping under the weight of the seriousness and highly sentimentalized tone often bound to baseball movies. The romance with Brenda (Lake Bell), a medical intern renting J.B.’s bungalow, is very Hollywoodized yet retains a natural believability through the stars’ relaxed charisma. It might have been fun if a song could have been worked in too.

Grade: B-


LOCKE (Steven Wright, 2013)

While the future of the planet often hangs in the balance in action and superhero movies, LOCKE puts one man’s world in jeopardy and is no less tense because of the more intimate scale. Writer-director Steven Knight sets the film almost entirely inside a BMW that Ivan Locke (Tom Hardy) is driving to London for a reason that gradually gets revealed. On the eve of a major job the construction foreman takes off knowing full well that his actions will lead to his firing. Conscientious to a fault, he still plans to talk a co-worker through the steps needed to prepare for the big pour the next morning. Locke also uses the car’s in-dash system to stay in communication with his family and the anxious woman he’s going to see.

Information is scarce at first in LOCKE, so all markers in the situation are fraught with possibilities. Locke is ill and gets choked up telling one of his sons that he loves him. Might he have been poisoned and has just an hour or two to live? Considering the importance of what he’s abandoning, is someone twisting his arm? The answers turn out to be more ordinary than films like this lead us to anticipate. Locke had a one night stand with his lonely 43-year-old assistant Bethan (Olivia Colman) during an out-of-town assignment. She is now in the hospital to give birth to his child two months early and has no one else to turn to, which is why he’s racing to see her and potentially ruining a fifteen-year-old marriage that has produced two sons. Still furious at his own father’s absence and poor example, Locke is compelled to be at the birth and provide the baby with his name.

With its single, confined setting and Hardy’s face the only one seen on screen, LOCKE runs the risk of being a gimmicky exercise in working with creative limitations. Wright’s decision to have Locke speak with his father as if he’s a ghost along for the ride is a theatrical flourish that doesn’t hit the mark, but otherwise he manages the smallness to the film’s advantage. The car is Locke’s master control room from where everyone he needs to reach is a button away. It’s also an oasis shielding him from the consequences of his choices until he’s off the expressway.

There are only so many camera set-ups available inside and outside the automobile, but Hardy holds attention by making his character hard to read despite having access to his private thoughts and feelings. Locke assesses and acts on his predicament in purely rational terms and sticks to noble and reckless choices. Ironically, this has the effect of making him more unpredictable. His journey remains suspenseful because Locke thinks everything can be solved by following the proper procedures. From phone call to phone call the camera lingers on the only visually present actor as Locke methodically attends to matters at home, the workplace, and the hospital. Hardy’s calmness suggests everything will be all right, yet this faith in doing what he perceives as the right thing, even if it ruins his marriage and career, is contrary to everything else he believes. As a builder he knows that if a foundation fails, everything on it crumbles too. Nevertheless, he’s willing to take that chance with his life. His process is riveting to watch.

Grade: B-

Wednesday, May 07, 2014

Blue Ruin

BLUE RUIN (Jeremy Saulnier, 2013)

In Francois Truffaut’s book of interviews with Alfred Hitchcock, the masterful suspense director says, in reference to a murder in TORN CURTAIN, “In every picture somebody gets killed and it goes very quickly. They are stabbed or shot, and the killer never even stops to look and see whether the victim is really dead or not. And I thought it was time to show that it was very difficult, very painful, and it takes a very long time to kill a man.” BLUE RUIN takes the messy and arduous nature of murder and studies it over the course of a film than just one scene.

Scraggly-bearded Dwight (Macon Blair) is living out of his rusty Pontiac Bonneville on a Delaware beach when a police officer brings him into the station. He’s not in trouble. Rather, she wants him to know that Wade Cleland, the man who was convicted of murdering his parents in 1993, is being released. Dwight buys a map of Virginia with the intent of tracking down and killing him.

Although he succeeds in stabbing Wade to death, Dwight waits for news coverage of it but doesn’t come across any. Having fulfilled his mission and cleaned up his ragged appearance, Dwight visits his sister Sam (Amy Hargreaves) to let her know what he’s done. At this point he realizes that he left behind evidence that could allow Wade’s kin to come looking for him, her, and her two daughters. The absence of media reports indicates that the Clelands mean to handle the matter themselves.

Dwight is not an experienced killer, nor is he someone who seems to want to take lives except in accordance with Old Testament code. Director, writer, and cinematographer Jeremy Saulnier uses the protagonist’s predicament as a rumination on the corrosive effects of seeking revenge. The deaths Dwight is directly and indirectly responsible for complicate his life instead of relieving him of the rage and sorrow he’s carried for two decades. With his hangdog eyes and slight frame, Blair doesn’t look like the stone-cold assassin Dwight convinces himself to be. Whether he’s successful or not in killing those who have wronged him, Dwight’s withdrawn behavior and defeated posture reflect a man who lets his response to his parents’ murders claim a victim in a quieter, less recognizable way.

Although BLUE RUIN is a somber picture, Saulnier gooses it with dark humor. As Dwight barricades himself in the house and sets up various traps, he resembles an older, more malicious Macaulay Culkin in HOME ALONE. Dwight’s inexperience with weapons, lack of thoroughness, and accumulating problems are also mined for laughs. Saulnier finds room for other mood-lighteners in the sound design, whether it’s Dwight having to distinguish between a ring being a telephone or a bird and dealing with feedback when trying to leave an answering machine message. For all of its grimness, BLUE RUIN never fails to spot the absurd.

Grade: B-

Tuesday, May 06, 2014


HOMEFRONT (Gary Fleder, 2013)

Two years after the bloody end of an undercover operation with a meth-cooking and distributing biker gang in HOMEFRONT, Phil Broker (Jason Statham) chooses the simple life in a small town. The widower Broker is now content to bide his time fixing up his house in Rayville, Louisiana and caring for his almost ten-year-old daughter Maddy (Izabela Vidovic). If he’s taught her anything, it’s how to protect herself, as she proves to a bully on the playground. The incident sparks a confrontation with the boy’s parents, Cassie (Kate Bosworth) and Jimmy Klum (Marcus Hester). Cassie provokes Jimmy into fighting Broker, who has no trouble beating him down. He considers the matter settled but is told that in this part of the country people hold on to grudges and perpetuate feuds.

Cassie has no intention of letting the situation go, so she asks her brother Gator Bodine (James Franco) to intervene. While snooping around Broker’s property Gator slashes a tire and steals a stuffed animal and pet cat before stumbling onto something Broker’s files. Learning that Broker is a former DEA agent is valuable for a guy running a meth operation out of his boat and trailer repair shop. More importantly, he discovers that Broker was involved in the case that saw Shreveport kingpin Danny T. (Chuck Zito) sent to prison and his son killed by law enforcement. With the help of his girlfriend Sheryl (Winona Ryder), Gator plans to share his knowledge of Broker’s whereabouts to the bikers so he can improve his business in the area.

Although HOMEFRONT follows a standard action thriller recipe, it cooks up like a gumbo made from basic cable dramas. Even if it’s not derivative of any one show in particular, it contains elements of BREAKING BAD, JUSTIFIED, and SONS OF ANARCHY. While the TV series have time to develop multiple storylines and well-populated worlds of characters, HOMEFRONT has to introduce and wrap up everything in the equivalent of two episodes’ time. Certainly it’s possible to tell this kind of story in a hundred minutes, but Sylvester Stallone, who adapted the screenplay from Chuck Logan’s novel, tosses in several plot points without making any of them stick. Broker’s possible romance with a school psychologist (Rachelle Lefevre) is among the inconsequential side stories delaying the big showdown.

If Stallone were younger, it’s easy to imagine him starring in HOMEFRONT himself. Nothing here seems tailored to Statham’s strengths as an action star. As just another ruthless and efficient killing machine he doesn’t get much of an opportunity to display his fighting skills. There’s little character work to do either, as Broker is a generically sketched hero with little backstory or motivation. He’s concerned for his daughter’s well-being and seems to think his colleagues used excessive force in the Shreveport incident, but otherwise little time or detail is provided to explore what makes him tick.

Franco’s presence as the primary villain offers hope that he might spice up an ordinary action picture. On the plus side, Gator conducts himself in a smarter manner than the usual antagonists in this sort of film. He has the potential to be like JUSTIFIED’s Boyd Crowder, a redneck with a devastating capacity for manipulation, but unfortunately Gator functions more as a middle man in HOMEFRONT’s conflict. If the role weren’t so bland, a bad guy with a gator tattooed the length of his right forearm could have made a perfect addition to Franco’s seemingly career-long performance art act. So it goes for the homogenized familiarity of HOMEFRONT.

Grade: C

Monday, May 05, 2014

The Other Woman

THE OTHER WOMAN (Nick Cassavetes, 2014)

New York City lawyer Carly Whitten (Cameron Diaz) has only been seeing Mark King (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) for eight weeks in THE OTHER WOMAN, but her behavior suggests she believes he may be the one with whom she’ll settle down. She’s exclusively dating Mark and even invites him to meet her dad Frank (Don Johnson). To her the first sign of trouble in their relationship comes when he calls off the dinner because he has to attend to a plumbing emergency at his Connecticut home. Nevertheless, Carly decides to make the best of the situation by putting on a sexy plumber’s outfit and surprising him at his place. She’s the recipient of the unexpected, though, when his wife Kate (Leslie Mann) answers the door.

Being confronted with news of her husband’s philandering shatters Kate. With no support system around her, she tracks down Carly for a shoulder to cry on. Carly is done with Mark because she refuses to go out with married men, but she’s not particularly sympathetic to Kate. Through their anger at Mark they gradually bond until Kate believes Carly may still have something on the side with him. To their shock, they discover he’s cheating on both of them with the nubile Amber (Kate Upton). Carly and Kate inform Amber of Mark’s ways and plot together to get their revenge on him.

THE OTHER WOMAN puts on a brave face as if it’s a gleeful women’s revenge comedy, but for much of its running time the characters’ pain overwhelms the feeble humor. Rather than feeling energized as they team up in sisterly power, Kate and Carly are forced to examine their lots in life. Kate is terrified at the idea that she has to choose between staying in a broken marriage or starting over without a career, family, or friends. She gave up her work for Mark, delayed having kids at his insistence, and has a social circle tied to his pals. Carly despairs at remaining in the dating world as the prospects become fewer and competition gets stiffer from younger women. Carly’s five-time divorced father habitually moves on to younger partners, so she’s keenly aware of what awaits her if she doesn’t snag a man soon.

In theory THE OTHER WOMAN views these existential conflicts from the female perspective. While it has the hallmarks of a Nancy Meyers film--complicated women’s love lives, lavish living spaces, and pop standards on the soundtrack--the sensibility behind THE OTHER WOMAN seems to belong more to a man. (The film is written by Melissa Stack and directed by Nick Cassavetes. The problems could be endemic to the screenplay, although how Cassavetes has scenes play suggests significant blame should be assigned to him.) The easy, unlikely friendship among Kate, Carly, and Amber reads as a misguided belief in divine sisterhood. The wronged women are often made to look more ridiculous than the man committing serial infidelity. All three continue to be drawn to and want to compete for Mark despite staggering evidence of his shortcomings. Mark is such a non-presence in the film that it hardly feels like a victory for the ladies when he is served his comeuppance. It’s also impossible to ignore that the camera adopts the leering male gaze when Amber is on screen in bikinis or low-cut clothing.

Diaz and Mann are fine comedic performers who also locate the anguish in their roles despite THE OTHER WOMAN not being particularly concerned with the deeper emotional aspect. Watching them flail about with material that doesn’t respect them goes to show how lousy the roles for women often are in Hollywood, even in a project targeted at the female audience. While women get more screen time here than they do as props for heroes in other films, they’re made to act like hens chasing after the rooster. It’s hardly a fair trade-off.

Grade: D+