The old saw about “All good things come to those who wait” was definitely in play during the second half of the “New Movies at Old Yesteryear” mini-festival this weekend, because the remaining films I watched were all worth three stars or more:
Michael Clayton (2007) – George Clooney is the title character, a “fixer” for a prestigious legal firm who finds himself re-evaluating his career after a good friend of his (Tom Wilkinson) is taken out by a chemical company concerned that said pal planned to turn over documentation to the plaintiffs in a class action lawsuit. That’s pretty much the plot in a nutshell, but it makes for an engrossing character study as Clooney’s “bagman” finds himself literally at the end of his rope (he owes $75,000 to a mobster who funded his screw-up brother’s bar) and anxiously looking for salvation. A first-rate cast holds court in this mesmerizing suspenser: TDOY fave Tilda Swinton is a top chemical exec who’s clearly in over her head (and deservedly won an Oscar for her performance), the late director Sydney Pollack (who also co-produced the film) plays Clooney’s boss (with Michael O’Keefe as a colleague in the firm) and even “White Shadow” Ken Howard is present and accounted for (as Swinton’s boss). Clooney got an Academy Award nom for his performance but since they’d already given him a trophy for his supporting turn in Syriana (2005) I guess the Academy felt no further obligation—but personally, I thought he was superb in Clayton and I’m probably the only person who felt Syriana was wildly overrated. (***1/2)
Up in Smoke (1978) – Yeah, I know it’s kind of freaky seeing this show up on the list; I was in the middle of watching The Heartbreak Kid (2007) when my cable box’s reminder window popped up informing that this was coming up next and having yet to find anything funny in the Ben Stiller remake I switched over to watch one of my favorite cult movies starring Richard “Cheech” Marin and Tommy Chong as a pair of cheerful hippies just trying to score some good grass. There’s really no reason why this movie should be as good as it is: it’s sloppily-made, and the jokes are scattershot at best. But for those of us who grew up listening to the comedic pair’s comedy albums (I have my cousin Stevie to blame for this) it’s the one flick that really captures what made the tokin’ duo so funny (and if you’ve seen any of their other films you know that this one is pretty much the best). Some really rib-tickling gags in this one, including a scene where Cheech, suffering from the effects of a bad taco, frantically asking people working in a noisy upholstery factory where the toilet is (one of the stalls is occupado, and he muses that the inhabitant inside must have eaten the same kind of tacos he did) and the bit where the girl snorts up several lines of Ajax thinking it’s cocaine (her facial expressions are priceless). Plus there are some funny cameos from Strother Martin, Edie Adams (was this one of the gigs she took to pay off husband Ernie Kovacs’ debts?), Tom Skerritt, David Nelson and Ellen Barkin (she’s the dame playing the guitar)…plus Stacy Keach (assisted by Mills “Deputy Perkins” Watson) as super narc Sergeant Stedenko (“Admit you’re the munchies”). (***)
Brick (2005) – I forget who recommended that I see this film (if I had any suspects, the first would probably be Vince Keenan) but I’m glad I did—it’s one of the cleverest movies I’ve seen in recent years, telling the tale of a teenage outcast (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) who investigates the murder of an ex-girlfriend (Emilie de Ravin) and finds himself enmeshed in the activities of a drug kingpin played by Lukas Haas. The film itself is an homage to the Hammett/Chandler tradition, with its protagonist making his way through the high school “underground” (a la Philip Marlowe) with the help of a sidekick nicknamed “The Brain” (Matt O’Leary) and the hindrance of the all-important femme fatale (Nora Zehetner). What fascinates me about this film is that most of the characters (including the vice principal, played by Richard “Shaft” Roundtree) speak in a sort of cynical patois that suggests hard-boiled may be a language elective at this high school, just like Spanish or French. Brick can’t sustain its novel premise to the end (though the ending is sort of neat, reminiscent of Scarlett Johansson’s whispered farewell to Bill Murray in Lost in Translation) and with the exception of Levitt and Haas (whose drug lord is called a “Goth cripple” by one of the other characters), most of the remaining participants come off a bit one-dimensional. Still, this movie gets major kudos for trying something different. (***)
Juno (2007) – I have to be really honest about this movie: I avoided it for quite some time because every review I read described it as “sweet”…which is usually shorthand for “chick flick.” Just goes to show, however, that you can’t judge a book by its cover; Juno is a sprightly and winning little comedy about a high school nonconformist (Ellen Page) who finds herself great with child (courtesy of a one-night stand from geeky boyfriend Michael Cera) and makes the decision to carry the child to term so she can give it to a young childless couple played by Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman. Juno MacGuff is a literal breath of fresh air, a free-spirited thinker who’s quickly determined that her pregnancy will not make her a victim and she’s fully-prepared to deal with the small-town stigma she faces. Although her father (J.K. Simmons) and stepmom (Allison Janney) are naturally taken aback at first by the series of events, they become incredibly supportive (and impressed that Juno is altruistic enough to want to pass along the child to a couple who are clearly equipped to take better care of it)—which I think is the key to what makes this movie work so well; the characters change in so many ways that heroes becomes villains and vice versa. A good example of this is Bateman’s Mark Lorring, who appears at first to be a really cool guy (Juno takes to him immediately, since they share musical tastes and an affinity for slasher/gore movies) but is gradually revealed to be a selfish individual wallowing in a Peter Pan syndrome when he announces he’s prepared to divorce Garner on the grounds that he’s simply not ready to be a father.
All of the performances in Juno are top-notch, though I’d probably single out Simmons as my fave (he has this wonderful line when he and his daughter are visiting the Lorrings for the first time: “Thanks for having me and my irresponsible child over your house”) and Garner’s gradual transformation from hyperactive would-be mother to self-assured parent is also a big plus. Juno scooped up several Academy Award nominations (including one for Best Picture; it snagged an Oscar for Best Screenplay for writer Diablo Cody) and while I wonder how a slight (though still entertaining) comedy could muscle out other important pictures (2007 must have been a bad year for movies) it’s reassuring to know that the Academy hasn’t completely lost its sense of humor. (For a slightly different take on this film—check out this first-rate review from my good friend Laura at Laura’s Miscellaneous Musings.) (***)
In Bruges (2008) – Hands down, the best film I watched all weekend. Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson are a pair of fugitive hit men who hide out in the picaresque Belgian town of the film’s title, and while Gleeson (a gentle giant of a man) falls in love with Bruges’ charm and beauty, Farrell constantly kvetches about how the village is a boring “shithole.” (“If I grew up on a farm, and was retarded, Bruges might impress me but I didn’t, so it doesn’t.”) Farrell’s dismissal of Bruges dissipates when he meets Clémence Poésy, a girl who provides drugs for a dwarf actor (Jordan Prentice) on a movie set, but as the film progresses we learn that what’s really eating him up inside is the fact that he killed a young boy in the process of taking out the real target of the hit, a priest. Farrell and Gleeson’s boss (Ralph Fiennes) informs Gleeson that he’s been picked to croak Ferrell for this tragic mistake.
If what I’ve described here sounds a little like a Coen brothers film, it’s because that’s how In Bruges came across to me—a jet-black comedy with a cast of eccentric characters in a plot that involves a lot of violence and a lot of killing (it’s definitely not for the squeamish). While I’m not a big fan of actor Farrell’s antics off-screen, I can’t deny that he’s not a first-rate actor and his Ray is a joy to behold, a hit man with all too obvious human frailties. But I must admit that Gleeson outshines his co-star as the philosophical Ken, who’s taken a liking to his partner (whether or not this is due to Ken’s being gay is left for the viewer to decide) and risks the wrath of boss Harry (Fiennes) in seeing Ray safely out of town (only the wildest of coincidences—involving a character played by Homicide: Life on the Street’s Zeljko Ivanek—brings the hapless Ray back to his starting point). In Bruges references several classic movies (Poésy explains to Farrell that the reason why they’re filming Prentice is that it’s an homage to Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now ) and almost trips itself up when Gleeson’s character can be seen watching the beginning of Touch of Evil (1958) in his hotel room, but the strength of the characterizations and loopy plot (the ending of this is positively delicious) overcome all of this. Director Martin McDonagh also wrote this offbeat film (the screenplay got an Oscar nom) and personally, I think he was robbed. (****)
Tomorrow: For reasons I still can’t explain, I got an extension on the HBO/Cinemax free offerings, which give me the opportunity to watch Rendition (2007) and Eastern Promises (2007).