PICKS OF THE WEEK
U.S.; Tony Gilroy, 2009, Universal
Tony Gilroy's Duplicity is slick wish-fulfillment of a particularly delicious kind: a romantic comedy suspense thriller set in the same super-high-tech world of corporate intrigue and deadly gamesmanship Gilroy used as a stylish backdrop in Michael Clayton, but reconfigured this time for a tongue-in-cheek, contemporary, Cary Grantish-Grace Kellyish sort-of-Hitchcockian vehicle for Julia Roberts and Clive Owen. The result is swift, pretty, classy, brainy and full of clever cross-talk and exciting set-pieces -- a movie that gives you the voyeuristic charge and delight of watching its super-sexy costars playing dangerous games with each other -- and us -- as upper-echelon corporate spies Claire Stenwick (Roberts) and Ray Koval (Owen), as well as with a pair of corporate king snakes played by Tom Wilkinson (as sneaky-mean Howard Tully of the fictitious Burkett and Randle) and Paul Giamatti (as hyperbolic/devious Richard Garsik of mythical Omnikrom).
That's a quartet of actors who should get your motor running even if they were showing up for another movie about championship poker or for a bio-drama on Calvin Coolidge -- and Duplicity is high-grade, silky-smooth stuff, near the top of its class.
In fact, if there's any reasonable objection to Gilroy's new movie, it's that some audiences, spoiled rotten by standard-issue contemporary Hollywood thrillers and teen-sex farces, may find it hard to follow. But I don't think the movie's IQ should be held against it. The whole cleverly unwinding plot makes sense by the end, and the elements that may cause some temporary confusion, such as the fractured, back-and-forth-in-time chronology, all prove part of the same ingeniously worked out plot and counterplot.
Claire and Ray are spies, but their targets aren't Cold War-style feuding nations, but nefarious multi-national corporations, battling over a secret formula for a household product that could change the world and reap billions for the winner. Claire has penetrated Burkett and Randle, and Ray is her Omnikrom contact/handler, despite what seems a residue of bad feelings over previous love affairs and corporate tiffs. When they talk, they whip each other with words and dodges; when they spy, they have all their cards close to the vest and all their tricks as solidly, colorfully at hand as the Rubik's Cubes they both carry. And when they screw, you never know who's going to manipulate or walk out on whom.
Roberts and Owen make sex seem like a contact sport, and corporate intrigue seem like the stuff of 007 and SMERSH. Owen would have made a good James Bond, natty and deadly as Daniel Craig but a tad wittier, and this is the movie that proves it. And Roberts actually could play Tracy Lord in an update of The Philadelphia Story and bring it off.
The kick of the movie is that we're never really sure, until the end, who's playing whom and why. Roberts uses her coltish, snappish, sexiness to seduce us as well as Ray, and Owen opens up a vein of comic vulnerability and schlemielhood beneath the Bondishness. So what's the underlying theme here? Is sex just a career tool, beauty and charm just corporate come-ons? Duplicity is about smart, highly professional but amoral people, who may be stabbing each in the back at every turn. And, given the recent exposure of corporate duplicity in our own financial world, it's a movie that's become as timely as it is entertaining.
Trouble the Water (B)
U.S.; Carl Deal, Tia Lessin, 2008, Zeitgeist
I feel I should get in a good word about Trouble the Water, director Carl Deal and Tia Lessin's documentary about New Orleans resident and rapper Kim Roberts and her husband -- who stayed in the city throughout Hurricane Katrina, shot some of the storm, its prelude and aftermath in powerfully grainy and slapdash images on their home video camera, and later hooked up with Deal and Lessin to continue the story.
The troubles after the storm provide the major part of Trouble the Water, which shows both the sound and fury of Katrina and then the often lamentably stupid and insensitive handling of the poorer people and survivors who got caught in this maelstrom, suffering the consequences of yet another of Bush's seemingly endless string of fiascoes.
Trouble the Water shows us the effects of the Katrina disaster from the viewpoint of people who saw and experienced it firsthand, but whose voices and testimony are often neglected or unheard. Here, in this fine, compassionate film, they can't be ignored.
The Last Days of Disco (A-)
U.S.; Whit Stillman, 1998, Criterion
Whit Stillman's best film: a portrayal of the latter days of the New York Disco scene, and a club that looks suspiciously like Studio 54 -- and a movie that manages to let us enjoy the sensuality and fun of the era, and a lot of the then-trashed but still danceable music, and at the same time see why it fell and why it prompted outraged middle-class rockers to scream "Disco sucks."
Stillman's milieu is a little conservative and smugly smart-ass for my tastes -- which may be why the three main male characters, Chris Eigeman's Des, Matt Keeslar's Josh and Mackenzie Astin's Jimmy, are a squealer/disco employee, a prosecutor out to bust everyone and a failed adman, why the only leftist character is a fool, and why everyone tends to be so proudly, relentlessly trivial and self-serving. (And well-dressed.) But Stillman knows these people (whose motto seems to be "Let us eat cake") inside out, and his dialogue is unfailingly smart and hip.
Chloe Sevigny and Kare Beckinsklae are Alice and Charlotte, the two girls on the prowl: less meaty and funny as characters, maybe, but looking terrific and acting the roles to a high sheen. Last Days also boasts a disco score so jam-packed that it reminds you of George Lucas' wall-to-wall '60s rock backdrop in American Graffiti. Sadly, it doesn't include my own personal favorite disco inferno anthem, Thelma Houston's "Don't Leave Me this Way." (Go to Looking for Mr. Goodbar for that one.) But Stillman makes up for that lack by referencing the great Disney comics genius Carl Barks, and Barks' zillionaire money-bin-diving creation, Uncle Scrooge McDuck (another conservative I like). (Extras: Commentary by Stillman, Eigeman and Sevigny; four deleted scenes; featurette; trailer; reading by Stillman; booklet with David Schickler essay.)
U.S.; John Cassavetes, 1970, Sony
John Cassavetes and his acting pals Peter Falk and Ben Gazzara play three middle-class buddies on a toot. They drink, they laugh, they quarrel, they chase women. Finally, they fly all the way to a not-so-swinging London for more revelry -- even as the party begins to die around them. Underrated Cassavetes, I think, and one of the few opportunities to see these three great actors and unbuttoned chums -- goofy Falk, wild/sneaky Cassavetes and secretive, troubled Gazzara -- playing off each other on screen. What a trio! They give you life in the raw as few acting teams, and few filmmakers, can.
U.S.; James Toback, 2009, Sony, Blu-ray
In a movie interview that's both fiercely candid and incongruously sensitive, ex-heavyweight boxing champ Mike Tyson comes across here-- under the sympathetic eyes and hands of director/friend James Toback -- as much more than the wayward knockout king, fallen boxing hero and beast of the ring he seemed through much of his career. This documentary is Tyson's side of the story, and Toback, while avoiding much contrary evidence, tells it well. He gets the ex-champ to open up amazingly. Perhaps Tyson sees the world is self-justifying or mistaken, but throughout this talking-head assault, he's clearly holding nothing back. The result: one of the most valuable, and often shocking sports documentaries ever.
Tyson and Toback give us a picture of a fighter/student who learned well, blasted his way quickly to the top -- becoming, at 20, the youngest heavyweight monarch ever -- but who eventually succumbed to his seemingly insatiable yens for women and sex. (In his early years, he avoided sex during training and bouts; when he fought, and lost to, Buster Douglas, he climbed into the ring with a case of the clap.) We hear eloquently from ex-Tyson wife Robin Givens about their stormy marriage. We get an ear-attack explanation, Tyson claiming that his ear-nibblings on Holyfield were brought on by illegal head-butts. (The fight films seem to back this up.)
But those seeking a "Rashomon"-like unveiling of Tyson's rape charge (by Desiree Washington) and conviction won't get to here. Tyson, almost too angry to talk, stubbornly insists he was framed, and no one answers him. (It's the most disappointing section of the movie and one for which -- even granted that Tyson served as one of the executive producers -- I think Toback should have gone outside for more testimony.)
In the end, this movie humanizes Tyson more than the average spectator or fight aficionado, or even the casual fan, might have believed possible. Just like Iron Mike's early fights, it's a powerful, stinging chain of body-blows and knockouts. And it casts a dark light on a neo-classic American success story. Instead of Terry Malloy muttering and crying out "You don't understand! I coulda been a contenduh!" we get the chastened Tyson's unspoken suggestion "You don't understand! I was the champ!" and maybe " I coulda been a man!" Both cries rend the nerves and scar the heart.
BOX SET PICK OF THE WEEK
Icons of Sc-Fi: Toho Collection (B)
Japan; Inoshiro Honda, 1959-61, Columbia/Sony
Japanese monster movie specialist Inoshiro Honda, a good friend of Akira Kurosawa's, struck it rich in the '50s and '60s with the lizard-on-the-loose classic Godzilla and some of its many followups. Here are three of them, and, after all thse years, the special effects, now primitive, still capture us with skill and -- a funny description perhaps -- their toy-like charm. (Mothra, a monstro-caterpillar turned giant rampaging moth, out to rescue two "tiny beauties" from exploiters, is one of the cutest monsters ever.)
Here are three Honda specials, all pretty silly (especially in the English-language versions, which are included here along with the original Japanese ones), but all very entertaining. (Honda was a pro: Kurosawa used him to direct second unit and action in "Ran.") You may not scream, but you'll almost certainly smile. (In English and in Japanese, with English subtitles. Extras: Commentaries on "Mothra" and "Battle.")
The H-Man (B), 1959: Monster noir, with gangsters mysteriously vanishing in the rain. Battle in Outer Space (B), 1960: War on the moon, with some imagery that prefigures Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. Mothra (B), 1961: Giant moth blows whole cities down, while the cast mugs in amazement.
OTHER NEW AND RECENT RELEASES
U.S.; Greg Mottola, 2009, Miramax
Greg Mottola won a lot of awards in 1996 for his debut feature The Daytrippers, a fine, funny ensemble New York City comedy-drama about families and suspected infidelity. Here, with the success of Superbad behind him, he takes us back to what one guesses must be his youth, showing us a nervously brilliant Pittsburgh high school graduate named James Brennan (Jesse Eisenberg), in the summer of 1987 before he's due to take off for Manhattan and Columbia, whose family falls on harder times, and who has to skip a European tour and take a bum job at a seedy little amusement park called Adventureland. It seems like a bummer, but the park proves to be a paradise of drama and life lessons. (I felt the same way about the country club in Fontana, Wisconsin, where I caddied.)
It has nearly everything. There's a neat girl to fall in love with (Kristen Stewart as the knowing Em Lewin), a girl to lust after (Margarita Levieva as the sultry Lisa P.), a studly musician/role model who once jammed with Lou Reed (Ryan Reynolds, perfect as Mike Connell), colorful bosses (Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig) and a helpful, intellectual, sarcastic buddy (Martin Starr as Joel), who thinks he can impress a date by loaning her Gogol's The Overcoat.
Even at populist heaven Adventureland, though, there are class differences. The higher caste handles the Rides. (Mike is head honcho.) And the lower caste handles the Games. (They're forbidden to ever award anyone a giant panda doll.) The show is full of '80s reminiscence and detail, and it reminded me what a bad decade it was, in many ways, for kids -- especially smart ones. It's a good movie, and though I didn't buy all of it, it does pull you into its own little world. That's a treasurable quality -- almost as much as a giant panda.
U.S.; Dito Montiel, 2009, Universal Studios
Dito Montiel's A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints -- which starred Robert Downey and Shia LaBeouf as the older and younger Dito surrogates, and Fighting star Channing Tatum as his best buddy -- was a well-regarded Scorsese/Cassavetes-style Mean Streets child, inspired by Montiel's Queens boyhood and later homecoming, and full of salty street talk and gritty NYC atmospherics.
Fighting, Montiel's pop follow-up, suggests, in a much smaller way, the kind of movie Scorsese might have made if he'd taken on Sly Stallone's original Rocky script, instead of New York, New York, and made himself a gutsy, corny, mass-slanted, box-officey, male Cinderella story. Scorsese seems constitutionally incapable of that kind of commercially bent show. (The Departed and Cape Fear are as close as he's ever gotten.) But Montiel here shows that he is.
Together with co-writer Robert Munic, he takes a lot of the elements and qualities that made his Guide so good -- the stylized street talk and brisk, spontaneous, gutty performances -- and puts them into a story that's almost flauntingly ridiculous and unabashedly clichéd. It's about a rising star in the underground world of organized New York street (and off-street) fighting: Tatum as feisty Shawn MacArthur. An Alabama kid who comes to New York, peddles books and goods on the streets, falls in with a somewhat down-on-his-luck hustler/operator (Terrence Howard stealing the movie as sly Harvey Boarden), and, with Harvey's aid, begins a shockingly fast rise through the streetfighting universe, battling Russian and Hong Kong killer-dillers, finding a cute girlfriend (Zulay Velez as Zulay) and finally scoring a possible super-payday: a climactic slugfest in a Wall Street penthouse with a convenient opponent/villain (an amazing coincidence) in Shawn's old Alabama high school rival (Brian White as Evan Hailey).
This story is so ludicrous that you almost have to admire Montiel for facing it and taking it on straight up, as if he were a streetfighter himself, climbing into the arena with an insane grizzly bear, singing "Eye of the Tiger." Barring miracles, there is probably no way the basic plot of Fighting could have been made into a really good movie -- unless maybe it were turned into a Busby Berkeley-style Rocky musical. It's neither four-letter-plausible enough, nor fantastically over the top, and as it keeps sliding between fairytale fights and pseudo-documentary, it remains somewhat entertaining, but too absurd to pull us in. And that's despite fairly sharp dialogue, good acting from everyone concerned and an excellent job by Howard, who plays Harvey with a slow-smooth, slightly addled-sounding rhythm that balances nicely with the speedier raps of everyone else.
I'm also always happy to see Luis Guzman on the streets again, even as a secondary side-line thug. And Tatum, who talks fast for a supposed Alabama boy, does deliver star quality; his looks suggest a more bulked-up James Dean and his acting style recalls all the Brando imitators/followers crossed with Steve McQueen. But Fighting in the end is just another sack of clichés that the actors bring to life, and I hope that, whatever happens with this movie, Montiel, Tatum and Howard never even dream of doing a sequel.
The Informers (D+)
U.S.; Gregor Jordan, 2009, Senator
Screenwriter-producer Bret Easton Ellis, who became famous when he informed on his fellow L.A. hedonist-student-druggies in Less Than Zero, just annoyed the living hell out of me with this movie about more monosyllabic revelers in smacked-out La-La Land. (To be fair, apparently Ellis doesn't like the result either, which leaves director Gregor Jordan as its defender.)
The source is an Ellis story collection set in the same crazy '80s era of Reagan, cult rock, bad parents, beaches and heroin, with Ellis ratting out the same band of desultory, well-dressed (and often undressed) rich kids mumbling insults, shooting up, groping and screwing their lives away. Ellis and co-writer Robert Munic have taken the original stories and tried to do the same kind of pre-Crash anthology tale Robert Altman made, masterfully, from Raymond Carver's short stories in Short Cuts. But the result is longer (seeming) and duller -- despite the presence of Billy Bob Thornton, Kim Basinger, Wynona Ryder, Rhys Ifans and various other actors-as-adults -- plus Jon Foster, Amber Heard, Austin Nichols and various other actors-as-brats.
After several hours of multiple infidelities, AIDS sores, drugs, empty hotel rooms, degenerate rock stars, Devo cuts, kidnappings, verbal jerk-offs and bitchings about everything in sight, I felt less than zero -- and the chic-callous ending almost suited my lousy mood. Not even the sight of an old hangout, Canters' Delicatessen (with a particularly odd clientele that day), or of Mickey Rourke doing one of his expert slime turns, could liven it up.
Speaking of Rourke, he plays the bad brother of another character, a pasty-faced doorman of surprising (in this milieu) kindness named Jack. Jack is played by Brad Renfro -- who died of a heroin overdose after the movie, and to whom it's dedicated. That dedication was the only thing I liked about the entire picture.
Rudo y Cursi (C+)
Mexico; Carlos Cuaron, 2008, Sony Pictures Classic
Nearly every sports movie cliché you can imagine -- and a few you probably can't -- pop up in writer-director Carlos Cuaron's Rudo y Cursi ("Tough and Corny"), a lively but massively unconvincing tale of Mexican soccer-playing brothers trapped in the pro-sports fast lane. The movie marks a disappointing reunion for costar/buddies Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna (the lusty travelers of Y tu Mama Tambien) and a flawed first outing for Cha Cha Cha Films, the highly promising joint venture of those brilliant and irrepressible filmmakers, Guillermo del Toro, Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu and Alfonso Cuaron (Carlos' brother).
Tough and corny is right. Rudo y Cursi shows us the flabbergasting rises and falls of two soccer-hero siblings, Luna as Beta (a.k.a. Rudo) and Gael as Tato (a.k.a. Cursi), who go straight from the banana plantation to incredible rookie superstardom as all-star goalie and scoring leader on different teams. Unfortunately, the boys are soon afflicted with bad women, drugs, booze and killer gambler/gangsters who disrupt their march to the all-time soccer records. Spoiler alert: I'll bet you can't guess which goalie faces which scorer in which last-minute penalty kick for what championship.
All of this is narrated by the brothers' cynical scout (Guillermo Francella), who can really pick 'em, even if they're knee-deep in bananas and tantrums. Cuaron, who co-wrote Y tu Mama with Alfonso, seems blind to the comic potential, or the outright absurdity, of his script, which is sometimes presented as if it were Body and Soul or Eight Men Out. Happily, we know that Bernal and Luna will recover nicely as long as they stay away from cynical talent scouts and record-breaking clichés. (In Spanish, with English subtitles.)