The Bank Job(3/28/2008)

            In recent years, I’ve gotten increasingly skeptical about crime movies from the UK.  I very rarely use a country of origin as a reason to be turned off by a film, but all to often British crime movies have be increasingly derivative recycling of Tarentino’s style via Guy Richie.  Of course there are plenty of bad derivative crime films made all over the world, but British exports seem particularly prone to this.  So why has a hater like me already seen two of UK crime films this year?  Well it’s mainly because of a lack of competition, if In Bruges and The Bank Job had been released during the summer or award season I would have happily ignored them, but the pickings are slim in March so I took the risk on them, and in the case of In Bruges I was pleasantly surprised.  Fortunately I was also somewhat surprised by The Bank Job, a crime film even further from the lineage of Tarentino than In Bruges.

            The film is set in 1971 London, and centers on Terry Leather (Jason Statham), a low level thug who partakes in low level crimes.  An old girlfriend of Terry’s named Martine (Saffron Burrows) meets up with him and tells him about a plan she has to rob a local bank whose alarm system is undergoing repairs.  Terry hasn’t done a heist as big as this before, but he agrees to this one because his auto repair business is not doing great, and he thinks it’s about time his gang breaks into the big leagues.  What Terry doesn’t know is that Matine is doing this because she is being Blackmailed by MI5.  The entire robbery is a scheme by MI5 to retrieve a compromising photograph of Princess Margret that is being held in a safety deposit box at the bank by a pseudo black militant calling himself Michael X (Peter de Jersey). 

            Jason Statham is a big part of why I was hesitant to see this film.  Statham is not really a bad performer, but he regularly finds himself in really trashy movies.  He seems to have two careers; one involves the aforementioned derivative British crime films like Snatch and Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels, the other path consists of B-Grade western Martial arts movies like War and The Transporter.  This film doesn’t follow either of those trends in Statham’s career, but I can’t say it really makes me like him much more than I already did.  Statham has what it takes to be a solid action movie hero; he’s something of a cross between Bruce Willis and Jean-Claude Van Damme.  But I haven’t seen any evidence to see him as a truly great actor outside of this type of genre work the way someone like Willis is.  Still, this is exactly the type of role that suits him, it’s a movie with a little more respectability but which doesn’t require him to really express any kind of deep emotion.

Another thing that turned me off to the movie was its bland title; in fact this is the blandest heist movie title since David Mamet’s Heist.  Of course one should never judge a book by its cover, but somehow I couldn’t quite expect creative genius out of a movie that’s simply called The Bank Job. Like that title, the actual heist here really is quite bland, especially when compared to other heist films.  There is no elaborate plan like one would find in Ocean’s 11, no firefight along the lines of Heat, and no colorful gang members like Reservoir Dogs.  Instead this heist is a simple matter of tunneling into a bank that’s been closed over the weekend, grabbing all the cash and leaving.  This isn’t rocket science and it’s also nothing we haven’t seen before, tunneling has been used in every heist film from Rififi to Entrapment to The Ladykillers

Two thirds of the way through the film I was being somewhat entertained, but the film had not set itself apart at all.  Fortunately, the story picks up in a big way in its third act and improves dramatically.  What sets the film apart are the things surrounding the robbery rather than the heist itself.  I don’t want to give away what goes on during the third act, there isn’t really a big twist but events simply begin to get more interesting after the heist, that’s where the film really kicks in.  

            The film is supposedly based on a true story, but I’m very skeptical about just how true any of this is.  I’m willing to buy the basic details of the heist itself, but the angle about the Princess Margret photos and the other elements surrounding the heist are a bit harder to believe.  The filmmakers claim that the truth of the incident haven’t been widely reported because of a D-notice placed on the situation by the British government, and this does make most of the film’s claims a bit hard to disprove.  The whole thing strikes me as something of a wild conspiracy theory to me; I’m sure the royal family is important to MI5, but I highly doubt they’d go to anywhere near the lengths they are here over one scandal.  Of course I’m never one to really worry that much about accuracy as long as a good yarn is being told, and if one doesn’t take the claim too seriously this won’t get in the way of one’s enjoyment.

            The impressive third act almost makes me want to give the film a pass, but the fact still remains that two thirds of the movie are rather bland.  The characters work, but I had no particularly interest or attachment to any of them.  The script told the story well enough and the dialogue worked well enough, although there was some kind of clunky exposition at points.  The film’s visual style worked moderately well, although there was absolutely nothing about it that set the film apart from the pack.  Not setting itself apart from the pack very much is a running theme in the film really.  The film is simply very average for most of its running time.  I’d be willing to recommend this as a rental, because I’m really close to giving it a pass, but I can’t really say it’s worth seeing in the theaters.

**1/2 out of Four

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4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days(3/7/2008)

 

            Within the hardcore film lover community, the cinema of Romania has recently come to great prominence.  With films like The Death of Mr. Lazarescu and 12:08 to Bucharest there is a real “new wave” feeling coming from the country.  This has been something of a running self deprecating joke among film buffs who would find themselves saying things like “why would I want to see Rambo, when I could be seeing that Romanian abortion movie?”  The “Romanian Abortion movie is of course 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, if not the best, certainly the most recognized Romanian film thus far.

            Set in 1980s communist Romania, the film revolves around a College aged girl Otilia Mihartescu (Anamaria Marinca), whose dorm roommate, Gabriela Dragut (Laura Vasiliu), has recently become victim to an unwanted pregnancy and wants an abortion.  The procedure is illegal in this era of Romanian history and in order to terminate the pregnancy they must illicit the service of a black market abortionist named Mr. Bebe (Vlad Ivanov).  

            The message of the movie never comes out and reveals itself, but it is obvious nonetheless: that when abortion is illegal it will still occur regularly but with greater danger, with even less dignity for the child, all while unnecessarily criminalizing young girls.  This is the same basic message that was on display in the great 2004 Mike Leigh film Vera Drake which focused on the well meaning woman who provided abortions through a method she doesn’t know is extremely dangerous.

            The Cristian Mungiu’s visual style is a big part of what makes the film special.  The film’s style recalls Cristi Puiu’s work in The Death of Mr. Lazarescu but does it better.  Most large portions of the film are done handheld or with a stedi-cam, but one is never supposed to associate it with documentary filmmaking.  The cinematography is clean and free of film grain, but seems washed out as if all the color has been removed from this world.  Mungiu often features long uninterrupted shots, but they are not long shots that call attention to themselves like the Dunkirk sequence of Atonement, or even Alfonso Curon’s work in Children of Men. The real purpose of these long shots seems more related to avoidance of breaking continuity, to avoid the artifice of such a technique.   As such, one subconsciously begins to feel like a third friend in the room with these two girls following them during their ordeal.

             Anamaria Marinca is the backbone of the film, and has to subtly convey her distress.  Note a particular scene where she is forced to attend a party as her friend is in a dire position.  Both her character and the audience are focused on the how Gabriela is doing, but are forced to deal with this intolerable family get together.   Marinca in this scene needs to convey deep thought while trying to keep a straight face at this party.  Laura Vasiliu also has the challenge of portraying a character that is desperate and often behaves irrationally.  There is a real panic to her behavior and a deep vulnerability that needs to be conveyed. 

            Special consideration should be given to Vlad Ivanov who must play the black market abortionist.  This abortionist is nothing like the empathetic Vera Drake, he’s simply in it for the money.  He’s like a drug dealer with medical skills, he does not care about these women, in fact he clearly looks down on both of them and has no hesitation to verbally abuse them both.  He is not an antagonist; in fact he’s technically the only ally these girls have.   Mr. Bebe is clearly a bad person, but he only has power because society has made his kind necessary.  Ivanov’s performance is really strong, and the movie really becomes great when he arrive in the film.

            In the May of 2007 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days won the Palm D’or at the Cannes Film Festival, as is usual with winners at Cannes, we’re only now seeing it nearly a year later.  This wait is largely because of studios trying to wait for the Academy to honor their films with a Best Foreign Language film Oscar, an honor which more often than not never comes.  This of course bites the academy in the ass when the films get released and build a following only after they are no longer eligible.  This of course wasn’t even nominated because the geriatric nominating committee wasn’t cutting edge enough to understand a Romanian Abortion movie.  What Foreign film distributors need to understand is that the foreign category, like any category, is largely dependent on buzz, and you’re not going to get much of it if your film hasn’t graced American shores.  Reforming the category should be simple: ditch the nominating committee and require American distribution for eligibility the same way they do for other categories. 

            Before I saw this film I was really skeptical about this so called “Romanian New Wave,” but now I see the potential.  I can definitely see why this would break away from the pack and get the recognition it has.  The film tackles a controversial topic with serious restraint and maturity.  The film has absolutely no mainstream appeal, but it is a great piece of cinema that should be seen by everyone who has an interest in the art house hardcore.

**** out of Four

In Bruges(3/4/2008)

            The shadow of Quentin Tarentino looms over independent cinema far too much even to this day.  When Pulp Fiction debuted in 1994 it was such an inspirational film that it lead to a number of copycat projects and rip-offs.  Clearly derivative films like Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead and The Boondock Saints would find themselves getting far more praise than they deserve.  Then Guy Richie brought Tarentino Rip-offs to the UK with projects like Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch that had a lot of energy and very few original ideas.  Consequently we were then treated to Richie rip-offs like Smokin’ Aces.  At this point we had digressed to making rip-offs of rip-offs of rip-offs. 

The trailer of the new Martin McDonagh film, In Bruges, made it look like another of these rip-offs.  Fortunately this wasn’t really the case, though the film does fit in with a certain post-Tarentino lineage at least in genre, it’s not as stylistically derivative as any of the films listed above.  Unfortunately, the film does suffer from a number of flaws of its own.

The film follows two Irish hit men hiding out in the Belgian tourist city of Bruges.  Ray (Colin Farrell) is emotionally wrecked for some collateral damage he caused in his last “job” and has nothing but disdain for the quaint city of Bruges.  Ken (Brendan Gleeson) has a much higher opinion of the city and is interested in seeing some of the cultural sites.  Ken has a much colder outlook toward his line of work, but maintains that he generally tries to live a moral life.  The crime boss Harry (Ralph Fiennes) has given them specific instructions to be ready to receive a phone call which Ken suspects will be instructions for a hit they’ll carry out in Bruges.

Perhaps the biggest problem the film suffers from is that its tone is subject to some rather jarring shifts.  One scene will feel like something out of a crude crime comedy and the next will explore rather esoteric themes of redemption.  Handled well this sort of duality could be put to good use, but it never quite works here.  The shifts are just too jarring and too random; one never really knows when to take the characters seriously.  The film also has a way of juxtaposing comedy and graphic violence in a way they clearly find ironic, but which I thought was mostly just disturbing.

McDonagh’s script delivers some very sharp dialogue that flows very nicely and never tries to be Tarentino-esque.  The script also develops the characters fairly well, but not well enough for this to work as any sort of deep character study.  As such the main draw here needs to be the story itself, the problem being that the story isn’t wildly substantial and relies way too much on coincidence and contrived situations.  Most of the first half of the movie involves the two hitmen (mainly Ray) getting into all sorts of random hijinx in the town, then there’s a twist, after that they re-encounter all of these things in ways that aren’t always overly logical.  Case in point, there’s an early scene where Ken goes to a top of a bell tower, this tower functions as the setting for one of the climactic action scenes.  Once I realized that the entire first half was a series of foreshadows it suddenly became clear what was going on and I was generally able to predict everything that would happen for the rest of the movie, and I was mostly right.  Many viewers may be impressed by the complex structure the film has, but I was generally turned off by the artifice of it all.

What saves this film ultimately is some very good acting from the three principle actors.  I’ve always thought of Colin Farrell as a very promising actor, he’s not on the same level as a Christian Bale or an Edward Norton, but he’s done solid work in a lot of good movies.  Here he has the challenge of taking a whinny, potentially annoying character, and making him sort of cool.  In Farrell’s hand Ray has a really manic, blue collar charm and he makes a lot of rather strange behavior from the character somehow make sense.  Though Farrell gets top billing, Ken is the real main character here, and he’s expertly played by the underappreciated character actor Brendan Gleeson.  Gleeson is able to make a lot of the character’s inner turmoil clear while keeping this all below the surface.  He’s able to make Ken into a rather dignified character without ignoring the fact that he’s still a thug a heart.  Just as the movie is beginning to go a bit off the rails in the final act, Ralph Fiennes shows up and absolutely steals the show.  Fiennes is able to take an over-the-top character and lets his character go over the top in a way that’s fun rather than off-putting.

In Bruges is a fairly fun if uneven and ultimately insubstantial film.   Despite its many flaws, the strong acting, fast pace, and energy make it a fairly easy watch.  I’m not entirely comfortable recommending people go to see it in the theaters at full price, but it would make a good rental for viewers who aren’t easily offended and are looking for a good crime movie.

*** out of four

Be Kind Rewind(3/1/2008)

            Michel Gondry is an interesting filmmaker, mainly because he entered the business in a different way than most.  Gondry has been making music videos, commercials and short films since the late 80s, but didn’t enter the world of feature films until 2001 when he made the film Human Nature. That work was mainly overlooked, but his sophomore effort Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, ended up being one of the best movies in recent memory.  Gondry is not like the many music video directors who seem obsessed with hyper kinetic pacing and massive CGI effects.  Rather, Gondry has built his style around quirky stories and creative dreamlike visuals constructed mostly with physical effects.  His third film, The Science of Sleep, was a disappointment.  The film was cerebral to a self indulgent extent; the film was nearly impenetrable to all but the most diehard of Gondry fans.  Gondry’s newest film, Be Kind Rewind, is probably the first Gondry film I’ve seen that doesn’t seem to take place in someone’s inner psyche, but it might have been more realistic if it did.

            The film mostly centers on Mike (Mos Def) a young man working at a small New Jersey VHS rental shop called Be Kind Rewind.  This is one of those neighborhood video stores everyone wants to support in theory, but usually doesn’t actually rent from because they have a poor selection.  The shop is owned by Mr. Fletcher (Danny Glover), who insists the store is the birthplace of the jazz great Fats Waller.  Fletcher is informed by the town that his shop, which isn’t up to code, has been condemned and will need to be ripped down in favor of a condo.  Rather than break this news to Mike, he goes on a trip in order to find new ways to run his business.  Mike is left in charge of the store, but this quickly goes awry when is peculiar friend Jerry (Jack Black) breaks into a power plant, magnetizes himself, than accidentally erases all the tapes with his presence.  Needing to procure a copy of Ghostbusters on short notice for the store’s most loyal customer, Mike and Jerry improvise and film their own DIY version of the film using very cheap effects.  Strangely enough the scheme works and they must quickly make similar homemade versions of other popular films.

            The movies Mike and Jerry make are really fun quirky pieces, with interesting DIY special effects.  The Ghostbusters movie (which is given more emphasis than the other titles) for example, ends with a marshmallow man (made out of a coat hanger and a bag of marshmallows) being set on fire, then exploding onto Jack Black (via a whipped cream spray can).  Any one of these copied movies could easily be a Youtube sensation, and Gondry continually surprises us by new and different do it yourself effects work.  The film also benefits from smart title selection, as most of the movies featured somehow feel inherently linked to the VHS format.

            Now I know what you’re thinking: Mike and Jerry’s scheme would never happen, no one would ever think that would work, and even if it could work it would still take a lot more money and time even to make these “cheap” versions of the films than it would be worth.  But, these kind of doubts forget one major element: that this film is “quirky” and that instantly nullifies all logic and common sense.  Of course that’s supposed to be the plan, but it doesn’t really work, not in the first half anyway.  To the film’s credit, mid way through its established that no one actually thinks these are the real movies and that they’re mainly supporting Mike and Jerry out of a neighborly sense of encouragement, still it’s hard to believe that anyone would be paying twenty dollars to rent these things even out of the goodness of their hearts.   In case you can’t tell, suspension of disbelief is necessary to get enjoyment out of this, but that’s not quite as large a problem as it would seem really, after all quirk really can explain a lot and there’s a certain “if you build it they will come” sentiment to the whole thing.

            That said, there are a lot of problems with the movie, and first among them is that it doesn’t really have very strong characters.  None of the characters are very well developed over the course of the film, nor are they established very well to begin with, which could have been forgiven if they were a bit more lovable, but they aren’t. Mike should be the main character of the film, he’s the one managing the video store, and he’s the one who changes somewhat over the course of the film, but Gondry fails to really focus on him, possibly because he wanted more screen time for Jack Black, whose character is really only strong enough to be a comic relief sidekick.  Mos Def is a better actor than most rappers, but he’s really not quite ready to carry a movie and this role needs someone who is.  Jack Black, unfortunately just sort of seems to be on autopilot, he has the disadvantage of having a character whose only real characteristics are that he’s loveably dumb and energetic.

There’s a point where Jack Black’s character lets the video store’s success get to his head and demands a trailer, here I began to think the film would turn into a satire of Hollywood, which would have been nice, but that never really materializes.  The movie generally would have benefitted from more laugh out loud moments, which would have really boosted the film’s overall value, instead it becomes one of those comedies that settles on making the viewer smile a lot.  I also found the film oddly predictable for such a creative piece, the filmmakers make the mistake of over-foreshadowing the finale which should have been more of a surprise than it was. The movie is really at its best when it shows the neighborhood coming together, and Gondry is very successful at building a believable community around the video store.

            The DIY movies being made here reminded me a lot of the extravagant plays put on by Max Fisher in the Wes Anderson film Rushmore.  Like those plays, the movies here are passionate projects built on a shoestring that can only be believed in a quirky movie like this.  The difference is that those plays were just a small element in a larger movie that explores its characters, while the DIY movies are at the center of Be Kind Rewind and despite his best efforts, Gondry can’t quite build a story around them.  There is fun to be had here, and there are a lot of really nice moments and an overall good spirit to the movie, but they don’t quite serve a satisfying whole. 

**1/2 out of four