MIDNIGHT IN PARIS (2011) / Comedy-Fantasy

Running Length: 94 minutes
MPAA Classification: PG-13 for some sexual references and smoking.

Cast: Owen Wilson, Rachel McAdams, Marion Cotillard, Kathy Bates, Adrien Brody, Carla Bruni, Michael Sheen, Corey Stoll, Kurt Fuller, Mimi Kennedy, Tom Hiddleston
Director: Woody Allen
Producer: Lefty Aronson, Stephen Tenebaum, Jaume Roures
Screenplay: Woody Allen

As the summer fast approaches, the movie theaters of America begin to become crowded. Blockbuster season is within reach. Students released from school prepare to flood the beaches of both the east and west coast. At night, they take to the local cinema, in search of both a good movie and a way to spend their hard-earned money. Substance is irrelevant. The star-studded action vehicles and the loud explosionfests and the special effects extravaganzas are what they really want to see, and who can blame them? Kids will be kids.

Well about that same time of year, Midnight in Paris was released to mainstream audiences. Immediately, it found both critical and commercial success, and for good reason, too. Unfortunately, I didn’t take advantage of the opportunity to see it then. See, my expectations for the movies of late are never high. So much cinematic crap has circulated from theater to theater over the past year or so that I simply don’t have any trust in any of them at all. Call me what you want, but I’ve wasted a good amount of money this year on movies that have put me to sleep and I don’t intend on doing it anymore.

Needless to say, when I finally did watch Midnight in Paris last night, I was pleasantly surprised. Not too surprised, as I am well-aware of Woody Allen and I take a liking to most of his work, but more surprised than I thought that I would be. Here is a film that has enough humor in it to make it a comedy, enough romance in it to make it romantic, enough heart in it to make it heartfelt, and enough charm in it to gross 150 million dollars at the box office.

The premise for Midnight in Paris is a familiar one, but not an overused one. We center on Gil Pender (Owen Wilson) and his wife, Inez (Rachel McAdams), as they are vacationing in Paris with Inez’s parents, played by Kurt Fuller and Mimi Kennedy. Gil is a nice guy. He’s affable and easygoing. His wife, on the other hand, isn’t. She’s uptight and slightly intolerant of him, and more concerned with the wealthier side of Paris, while Gil would rather just explore the city and admire the culture and historical significance.

One night, Gil decides to wander the streets of Paris by himself, drunk. When the clock strikes midnight, he is approached by an antique car and invited inside. He is dubious, but drunk, so he gets in. Eventually, they arrive at a bar and Gil realizes that he has transported back to the 1920’s. He talks to the likes of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, who offers to show Gil’s unfinished novel to classic to Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates), but when Gil leaves the bar to go and get it, he discovers that he is back in present time.

As the film progresses, Gil begins to develop an attraction for the mistress of Pablo Picasso, Adriana (Marion Cotillard.) He becomes more distant from his wife and she and her parents become suspicious of his late-night wanderings, leading to her father even hiring a private investigator.

Midnight in Paris is Woody Allen’s 46th feature film, and it seems strangely different from the rest of his work. It’s as if we’re getting a different side of the man, a brighter side. There is none of that cynical humor that is so prevalent in most of his films. The lead character, Gil, is lighthearted and is not so beset on pointing out all of the faults of mankind. He’s genial. Now, I’m not saying that I don’t like the leads in other Allen films like Whatever Works and Annie Hall; I’m just saying that it’s nice to have a change.

Of course, this “change” might have something to do with the casting of comedic actor Owen Wilson as Gil. Wilson brings a large amount of charm and charisma and likability to his character, which is something that is hard to find in a Woody Allen film, and his performance really helps contribute to the overall mood. Surprisingly enough, he makes for a great lead. (Hopefully, it will help get Wilson back on his feet, for he’s been out of work lately.) But there are other great performances besides Wilson’s, and almost all of them are brief. Adrien Brody is only present for one scene, in which he plays Salvador Dali, and Michael Sheen plays Paul Bates, the intellectual friend of Inez who seems to know very little of what he’s actually talking about. I found the film’s best supporting performance to come from Corey Stoll, a relatively unknown actor who plays the character of Ernestt Hemingway with such subtlety. If it wasn’t for his small amount of screen time, I’d bet on an Oscar nomination.

The general look of the film is attractive as well and visually stimulating. Each shot looks like a postcard; all of the bright and luminescent colors show Allen’s love for the city of Paris. He captures the fairy tale aspect of it beautifully. This is by far his best-looking film and I’m sure that many others will agree.

Simply put, I enjoyed myself. I had a great time. Sure, Midnight in Paris isn’t magnificent or a masterpiece, but it does have a certain quality about it that isn’t found in most other films. It’s undemanding and requires not a whole lot of thought. It’s funny, low-key, and an escape from all of the darkness and dreariness out there in the world, and in the end, that’s really all that you can ask for.

Final rating: ★★★ (out of ★★★★)

© 2012 Stephen Earnest

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Review: YOU KILL ME (R)

Ben Kingsley and Tea Leoni.

U.S. Release Date: June 22, 2007

Running Time: 93 minutes

MPAA Classification: R (Language, violence)

Cast: Ben Kingsley, Tea Leoni, Dennis Farina, Luke Wilson, Bill Pullman, Philip Baker Hall, Marcus Thomas

Director: John Dahl

Producer: Tea Leoni, Howard Rosenman

Screenplay: Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely

 

By STEPHEN EARNEST / January 5, 2012

The hitman comedy is easily one of the most identifiable kinds of  movies, simply because there’s always a certain amount of oddballness in them. The story always stays decidedly formulaic, but the characters are only normal to an extent, and their normality is only used to make them seem more human.

While John Dahl seems to have gotten most of it right, You Kill Me is not quite up to par with the likes of Grosse Pointe Blank and The Matador. It is not even really the same kind of movie as the other two, even though it certainly tries to be. There is a sense of humor at its core, but only of the mildest kind. I can’t guarantee that you’ll laugh more than twice, although you will certainly smirk a lot.

The film’s center is Frank Falenczyk (Ben Kingsley), a disorderly hitman with an incessant drinking problem. Now, I won’t necessarily call Frank the hero because he really isn’t. He’s just there. Sure, we’re supposed to be rooting for him when he goes up against the bad guys, but it doesn’t really ever work that way. He’s simply not likable enough. Kingsley usually plays such strong characters, but Frank just doesn’t have any depth at all. He wanders from scene to scene with the same expression of lethargy, always looking completely unhappy. Words come out of his mouth at such a low volume that I had to lean forward a couple of times to try and decipher what it was that he was saying. Now, while I’m not blaming Kingsley’s acting, in a way I sort of am. This is a role that requires no real emotion and Kingsley brings nothing to it, which is what it calls for, but I found myself detached and uncaring about the future of the lead character. If that’s what Dahl was aiming for, and it seems like he was, then mission accomplished.

The real story of You Kill Me involves Frank botching a critical mission and being sent to San Francisco to get himself together. While there, he has to take up a job at a mortuary and attend several sessions of AA. But while he’s away from home, another mob begins to threaten the one that he works for. Sounds good, right? Well, it’s the perfect premise for a hitman comedy. So much could be made of it. I sat there in my chair thinking of everything that could happen; waiting for something to appear on that screen and make me grin. I was getting my own hopes up.

Dahl squanders everything. He lets everything roll downhill in a wave of predictability, turning the last half-hour into a sort of romantic comedy. I sat there waiting for it to be over, the grin rapidly dissolving from my face.

I take it that maybe I’m on the few that doesn’t like You Kill Me. It’s too subtle and quiet for my taste. It doesn’t begin or end with a bang. In fact, there’s not even a real bang anywhere throughout the entire movie. Everything remains disappointingly low key. Yes, this is a hitman comedy, but only technically. It doesn’t hold a candle to the rest. There is a small amount of humor to appreciate, but none of it is ever dark. There is never a mood that fits. Nothing ever seems to fit quite right with anything else. That’s mainly where You Kill Me fails. It’s awkward and slow-paced.

RATING: 2/4 

Review: THE TRIP (NR)

Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon in "The Trip".

Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon in "The Trip."

U.S. Release Date: June 10, 2011

Running Time: 107 minutes

MPAA Classification: NR (Language)

Cast: Steve Coogan, Rob Brydon, Margo Stilley, Claire Keelan

Director: Michael Winterbottom

Producers: Andrew Eaton, Melissa Parmenter, Henry Normal, Michael Winterbottom


By STEPHEN EARNEST / December 27, 2011

At first look, The Trip may not seem like much, but once you get into it, it becomes something much more than you first expected. Now, by saying this, am I implying that a twist of fate occurs among the characters? That the plot takes a turn and becomes something different and more complex than the IMDb synopsis entails? Quite the contrary, actually.

For those of you that have read a plot synopsis on The Trip, you will know what I am talking about. For those of you that haven’t, allow me to explain.

Actor Steve Coogan (played by actor Steve Coogan) is assigned by the Observer newspaper to write an article on the cuisine of Northern England.  Unfortunately, his girlfriend can’t make it, so he invites an old friend, Rob Brydon (played by Rob Brydon) , to come along with him. From here, the plot does not deviate. Coogan and Brydon eat and converse with one another. That’s it. All of this is filmed in documentary fashion, so we get a sense that we’re just watching the lives of two actors. There are no hidden gimmicks or fight sequences or sex scenes. We watch two men go from place to place eating food. Simple enough.

This sounds boring, right? Well, it’s not. It’s actually quite entertaining, mainly because the two actors are such talented impressionists. Brydon (most certainly the funnier of the two) is constantly switching from voice to voice, mimicking a wide variety of famous actors, almost never using his own. In one hilarious instance, he and Coogan argue over who has the better Michael Caine impression, debating over whether or not his voice cracks when he gets emotional.

But while there moments of utter hilarity, there is a fair amount of emotional depth. We learn more about the Coogan character; about the underlying jealousy that exists between him and Brydon. We get a sense that there is some sort of rivalry going on between the two, because even though Coogan believes that he is the better and more well-known actor, Brydon is the one that gets stopped on the streets and asked for autographs.

There are various moments of truth here, such as when Coogan and Brydon decide to explore nature. Coogan spends the entire time explaining the cultural and historical significance of certain parts of the park, while Brydon is more interested in just observing it for himself. He doesn’t need to be told about something to enjoy it. Later on, Coogan is approached by a man who does the exact same thing to him (explaining how the rocks formed that way…) and he realizes how much of a pain it really is.

Ultimately, when we think that all of this character development is going somewhere, The Trip ends, without really resolving anything between Coogan and Brydon. Was it just a way to showcase the mimicking abilities of the two lead actors? That question plagues my mind so, but I think that the half-ambiguous ending makes it seem all the more like a documentary. It’s not a Hollywood movie with a happy ending; it’s real life.

In terms of direction, Michael Winterbottom doesn’t really have that hard of a job. Most of what appears on the screen is routinely executed. There are shots of the English landscape, shots of Coogan and Brydon talking in the car, shots of them eating and talking together, shots of the food being prepared, and shots of Coogan himself exploring the countryside, searching for cell phone reception. But to be fair, when has a documentary ever been that complex of a thing?

RATING: 3.5/4

JERRY AND TOM (1998) / Comedy-Drama

Running Length: 107 minutes
MPAA Classification: R for violence and pervasive language.

Cast: Joe Mantegna, Sam Rockwell, Maury Chaykin, Charles Durning, William H. Macy, Ted Danson, Peter Reigert, Sarah Polley
Director: Saul Rubinek
Producer: Lions Gate Films
Screenplay: Rick Cleveland (based upon his play)

Jerry and Tom is a wholly unknown work of cohesive directorial vision, showing us independent cinema at its absolute and unprecedented best. It is a film so unknown to modern audiences that it maintains somewhere around 300 user ratings on the review aggregator site Rotten Tomatoes, which is a low, low number in this day and age. But should that matter? Should the merit of a film be based on its own popularity? Why, of course not. You’ll find that some of best films are the ones that no one’s heard about.

The film focuses on the titular characters of Jerry and Tom (Sam Rockwell and Joe Mantegna), a pair of low-rent hitmen that work at a used car dealership. The owners, Billy (Maury Chaykin) and Vic (Charles Durning), often need “help” when it comes to solving messy situations, so when the time comes, the true talents of Jerry and Tom are put to use.

From there, Jerry and Tom follows the along the lines of many movies that came before it, but never too closely. Tom shows Jerry the ropes and teaches him how to go about his executions in the most professional way possible. But Jerry lacks the coolness and calmness of Tom. He’s talkative and show-offy and likes to do things his own way, which proves to be a little dangerous from time to time, and Tom doesn’t have the patience to deal with it.Of the two, Tom is the oldest and the wisest and has been in the business the longest. Jerry, on the other hand, is a newcomer. In fact, his becoming a hitman was entirely by accident. (He was merely in the wrong place at the wrong time.) So, due to his inexperience in the field, Tom takes him under his wing.

Where Jerry and Tom draws its strengths from is its director, Saul Rubinek, whose direction is extremely impressive considering the fact that he is an actor. His style is very visual, most notably in the film’s transitions, where one scene will shift to another without cutting a single time, giving us the illusion that the two have blended perfectly together. Rubinek also keeps the mood very light-hearted, despite how dark the subject matter is, and chooses to keep most of the violence off-screen. Rick Cleveland’s script (which was based off of his own one-act play) features original characters and a good, if morbid, sense of humor.

Mantegna and Rockwell both excel in their roles, each offering a well-modulated and humorous performance. Mantegna remains consistently calm throughout, keeping a cool and relaxed demeanor, and Rockwell plays off of him so well. The other supporting performances from the likes of Maury Chaykin, Charles Durning, and Ted Danson don’t disappoint either.

The biggest problem that Jerry and Tom has is Rubinek’s incorporation of flashbacks, which should have been left out. Take for instance the linkage between Vic and the JFK assassination. Yes, we know what happened. Yes, it sounds interesting and could have conceivably taken place. But the flashbacks take away any element of surprise. Some things are just better when left up to the imagination.

While films like Jerry and Tom go largely unmentioned in the conversations of most people, that doesn’t mean that they go entirely unnoticed. In fact, they almost garner a certain amount of prestige for being so unknown. Jerry and Tom is the kind of film that requires a fair amount of digging to exhume. It’s not out there just waiting to be watched. It’s not like everything else. It’s different and has something that a big budget can’t buy – heart.

Final rating: ★★★1/2 (out of ★★★★)

© 2011 Stephen Earnest

Review: PULP (PG)

Mickey Rooney and Michael Caine.

U,S. Release Date: October 31, 1972

Running Time: 95 minutes

MPAA Classification: PG (Language, sexual references, violence)

Cast: Michael Caine, Mickey Rooney, Lionel Stander, Lizabeth Scott, Nadia Cassini, Dennis Price, Robert Sacchi

Director: Mike Hodges

Producer: Michael Klinger

Screenplay: Mike Hodges

 

By STEPHEN EARNEST / December 4, 2011

Let’s just say that Pulp isn’t quite the Mike Hodges that we’re accustomed to; the Mike Hodges that made great films such as Croupier and Get Carter. It’s fairly sub-par for a director of his magnitude, and is lacking in many of the major areas that are required for a film to be considered “good”.

The biggest problem I have with Pulp is the plot, which remains mostly incomprehensible for a majority of the film. Now, by saying this, I’m not saying that there isn’t a plot, because there is. It’s just that it’s unclear and unfocused, and things only begin to start making sense after we’ve already been watching for an hour. Tragically, this is only an eighty minute film.

The film stars Michael Caine as Mickey King, an acclaimed novelist of trashy pulp fiction. He resides in Rome and leads a rather quiet and eloquent life.

One day, King is approached by a wealthy and sophisticated patron named Ben Dinuccio (played by hoarse-voiced actor Lionel Stander). Dinuccio offers King a proposition to ghostwrite the autobiography of Preston Gilbert (Mickey Rooney), a once-famous celebrity. Apparently, Gilbert has cancer and wants his story told before he dies.

Though dubious as first, King agrees and travels to Gilbert’s home, which is located on a remote island. The two meet and converse but before Gilbert can divulge any of  his information to King, he is murdered and it is left up to King to find out why.

Now, all of this is a good setup for a detective story. The only problem is that we’re already three-fourths of the way through the film, so there’s not much “investigating” to be done.

From this point, the plot delves into realms of eccentricity and absurdity so inexplicable that I can’t recall or comprehend much of what I saw. There are several other mysterious characters that are said to be involved in the murder plot of Preston Gilbert, such as a cross-dressing hitman and a paranoid clairvoyant, but none of them seem to really be all that important. Or maybe they are and Pulp just doesn’t explain their existence properly, which is something I could understand.

But unfortunately, the plot isn’t the only bad part about Pulp. The acting is stiff and there a plethora of technical mishaps, ranging from lazy cinematography to bad lighting to poor sound quality. The only positive thing I can say is that the set design is spot-on.

I will conclude by saying that while Pulp isn’t a “masterpiece”, it is interesting. Not in the sense that you’re interested in the story and characters, but rather interested in what becomes of them. It’s an oddball sort of film, and one that only a small and distinct crowd of people will like. It certainly tries hard to be what it’s not, and while you can spot the influences here, it never really pulls anything off.

What we’re left with is a forgettable neo-noir that could make for an enjoyable watch on any given night. It’s not perfect, but it’s a forgivable and mediocre attempt at greatness.

RATING: 2/4

Review: LIVING IN OBLIVION (R)

Steve Buscemi leading the rest of the crew as they prepare for a shot.

U.S. Release Date: July 21, 1995

Running Time: 90 minutes

MPAA Classification: R (Language, brief sexual content/nudity)

Cast: Steve Buscemi, Catherine Keener, Dermot Mulroney, James LeGros, Peter Dinklage, Kevin Corrigan

Director: Tom DiCillo

Producer: Michael Griffiths, Marcus Viscidi

Screenplay: Tom DiCillo

 

By STEPHEN EARNEST / November 21, 2011

Steve Buscemi has got to be one of the most charismatic actors out there. That’s not an insult, mind you. His characters are always so life-like and well-acted; so much, in fact, that you begin to wonder if they’re actually people that you know or have met before.

In Living in Oblivion, he shines. He plays Nick Reve, an independent film director. Lately, Nick’s been having a frustrating time with his cast. He can’t get anything to go right. The leading lady, Nicole (Catherine Keener), isn’t responding well to her male co-star, the meat-headed Chad Palomino (James LeGros), and the cinematographer Wolf (Dermot Mulroney) is having lady problems.

The main storyline is divided into three segments, all of which are either dreams or reality. We’re never quite sure. Is this intended to be some sort of underlying or hidden meaning? Who knows.

The main gag in Living in Oblivion is that  every time something goes well in a shot, something else goes wrong. Nothing ever goes exactly according to plan, and the thing that goes wrong usually screws up the entire shot. There are countless retakes, with none of them ever leading anywhere. We get a sense that this is what really happens on an independent film set. And who knew that someone else’s troubles could be so damn funny?

The film’s director, Tom DiCillo, won the well-deserved Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at Sundance Festival in ’95. And that’s the best part about Living in Oblivion. The writing is fantastic. It’s wickedly funny and original. Each character is given a decent amount of depth and DiCillo manages to poke fun in the just the right places.

The casting is perfect. Of course, Buscemi is fantastic in his role, but so are LeGros and Mulroney. LeGros is hilarious as the Brad Pitt-like leading man and almost every line out of Mulroney’s mouth could be considered comedic gold. These are performances that typical moviegoers don’t relish has much as they should. They consider a good performance to consist of detail, tears, and nudity. A good comic performance goes overlooked more often than not, and it’s one of the most difficult to perform.

These kinds of films, these low-budget comedies, are always so great. It’s great that they are unknown to the most of the world. Comedy like this comes with a price: you have to search for it, and in the end, it pays off.

RATING: 3.5/4

Review: SAFE MEN (R)

Steve Zahn and Sam Rockwell are a pair of bumbling and inept safecrackers in "Safe Men."

U.S. Release Date: August 7, 1998

Running Time: 1998 minutes

MPAA Classification: R (Language)

Cast: Steve Zahn, Sam Rockwell, Mark Ruffalo, Josh Pais, Paul Giamatti, Michael Lerner, Christina Kirk

Director: John Hamburg

Producer: Ellen Bronfman

Screenplay: John Hamburg

 

By STEPHEN EARNEST / November 16, 2011

Despite all of the “blah” moments that it has, Safe Men is charming — in a mentally-ill sort of way. There will be parts of it that you’ll like, parts of it that you won’t, and parts of it where you’ll laugh your ass off.

It stars a young Sam Rockwell and Steve Zahn as a pair of untalented singers, named Sam and Eddie. They go from club to club, performing badly-played and badly-sung renditions of songs.

Well, in a case of mistaken identity, they are mistook by a tool named Veal Chop (Paul Giamatti) as a pair of expert safe crackers, or “safe men”, and asked to break into a very important safe. They deny it at first, but realize how much money is at stake and agree. So, they break in, but are soon caught by “Big Fat” Bernie Gayle, a local Jewish mob boss and owner of the house they are robbing. After all the confusion is sorted out, Sam and Eddie discover that Veal Chop set them up and is in league with “Big Fat”. And in order for them to live, they have rob a trio of houses. Problem is they don’t know how.

Safe Men juggles several different kinds of things at once, but doesn’t do any of them very well. It doesn’t do any of them bad; just not very well. At the very least, it’s mediocre.

It’s very funny, if you’re into that whole Napoleon Dynamite kind of off-brand humor. Michael Lerner is hilarious as “Big Fat” Bernie Gayle, who takes the title of “Big Fat” as a compliment. Giamatti, as well, is funny. The story is fairly predictable. It does take a couple of twists and turns, but in all the ways you’d expect. It sort of meanders for the first hour, then the real plot kicks in, but it’s gone in ten minutes. So, for the most part, you’re stuck following around characters who aren’t so likable.

Rockwell and Zahn bring nothing to the table. Practically any actor could have pulled the characters of Sam and Eddie, and the probably could have done it. But that’s only because there isn’t much depth to any character in Safe Men. Is that really so bad? Here, I don’t think so because any depth would be unnecessary. This movie isn’t about its characters, rather the situations they get involved in.

To tell you the truth, I didn’t have a problem with it. It was original enough to keep me interested and funny enough to make me laugh, so I found it pretty enjoyable. It sure won’t appeal to everyone’s taste, but is it a bad movie? No. But it’s not a real good one either. Its just decent, mildly entertaining, and in the end, harmless.

RATING: 2.5/4