Monday, June 19, 2006

Movie Mon - I Like My Comedy Dark

Last week was a good week for movie watching, both in quantity and in quality, although there were still a couple of, if not mediocre, than at least less-enjoyable, films in the bunch.

On to the (much belated) reviews

Dave Chappelle's Block Party: Documentary about an enormous block party thrown by Dave Chappelle, featuring performances by a ton of big hip-hop names, including Mos Def, Kanye West, Erykah Badu and a reunion of The Fugees. You know, if it had been just about anyone else organizing this, the film wouldn't have been a blip on the general public's radar, but since it's Chappelle running the show, suddenly this movie that's just a step above a concert film is considered a must see. So, is it? Yes and no. If you're renting this hoping to see non-stop Chappelle goodness, then prepare to be disappointed; yes, there's quite a bit of Dave here, and the sequences with him interviewing people on the street and emceeing the party are pretty funny, but you have to make it through lots of hip-hop performances to get there. Now, if you're a fan of hip-hop, this might bother you; if you loathe it, the fastforward button on your remote might get a bit of a workout; if you're somewhat indifferent, you might just let it play, using the musical interludes as a chance to finish up reading the last book of the fantasy trilogy you've been working on.

Three guesses which category I fell in.

On the whole, I enjoyed the film, and would suggest that everyone rush out and rent it just for the section about the Broken Angel House, which has to be seen to be believed.

The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada: Tommy Lee Jones directs and stars in this dark comedy about an overly aggressive border patrol officer (Barry Pepper) who accidentally kills illegal immigrant Melquiades, and who is then kidnapped and forced to travel (with the body) to Mexico by Pete (Jones), a ranch hand who is trying to fulfill a promise to his dead friend Melquiades. This is a strange one, and that's for sure; strange, but good. I found it interesting that in his feature film directorial debut, Jones chose to play a character who wasn't necessarily all there; when the local sheriff (played by Dwight Yoakam) calls Pete "crazy" early on, I put it down to jealousy, but as the film moves on, I began to think that there might have been more to his judgment than the ravings of a green-eyed monster. My biggest complaint with the film is its non-linear storytelling structure early on. Now, I don't normally have a problem with non-linear structures, but here it felt pointless, especially since the chronological confusion was confined to early part of the film. It wouldn't have bothered me as much if there had been a more clear cut way of identifying when we were in the past and when we were in the present, mainly for one reason: I'm still unsure how much of Barry Pepper's actions took place before the accidental shooting and how much took place after. If his over-eager nature when going after illegal immigrants was pre-shooting, the character is just a jackass; if it happened after, then it was a product of his denial, and more understandable. If the intention was to leave things ambiguous, then mission accomplished; otherwise, the mark was missed. But there was so much greatness in the other aspects of this morbid little film that I'm willing to forgive it the stumble out of the gates.

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang: Another dark comedy, this time about a thief masquerading as an actor (Robert Downey Jr.) who gets drawn into a convoluted murder case while shadowing a P.I. (Val Kilmer) doing research for a role. I like to describe this film as meta-noir; throughout the film Downey's voice-over narration points out again and again that he knows he's trapped in something right out of Raymond Chandler story, although most of the noirish conventions (including the narration) are turned on their head early on -- while the film owes much of its style and inspiration to noir, it is more of a comedic deconstruction of noir than a reinvention of noir. Of course, that probably doesn't do much for the handful of blog monkeys out there asking "what the heck is noir and why should I care?" So for you filmic philistines, I'll put aside the noir-speak and just say that I laughed harder at this film than I have at anything else I've seen in the past couple of months. I know this one isn't for everyone; if you look at the IMDB boards for it you'll see that it's a very polarizing film, and I know that some of you blog monkeys won't appreciate its black humor all that much, but if you're the sort of person who thought that the accidental shooting in Pulp Fiction was hilarious, this movie might just be for you. Now, I will say that I found the ending to be a bit over-the-top, but after watching the next movie, it feels like a Merchant Ivory film in comparison.

Running Scared: A low-level mob thug (Paul Walker) tasked with disposing of a gun used by a superior in the killing of a dirty cop finds himself in a world of trouble when the gun is stolen by his son's best friend Oleg (uber-creepy child actor Cameron Bright) and used to shoot a connected Russian. Trust me when I say the following: the above synopsis does not even begin to scratch the surface of the insanity contained within this film. Honestly, I don't think I can even come close to conveying to you just how many weird twists and turns this movie takes; my suspension of disbelief was stretched almost to the breaking point. It's almost like little Oleg was a walking, talking Hellmouth, attracting all sorts of evil just by his very existence. That being said, I found the movie moderately enjoyable; yes, it was so over-the-top that it would have needed telescopic vision to see over-the-top down below it, but even as The Anti-Cap'n and I were yelling "Oh, come on!" at the screen, I was still glued to it. If nothing else, the film earns a gold star for the resolution of the strangers-with-ice-cream sequence; A.C and I both cheered then.

Green Street Hooligans: After being expelled from Harvard under false pretenses, journalism student Matt (Elijah Wood) travels to England to visit his sister (Claire Forlani, who is apparently British and yet still plays an American) and her husband Steve, only to become mixed up in the incredibly violent world of soccer hooligans, joining the West Ham "firm" led by Steve's younger brother Pete (Charlie Hunnam). Very well-done (though often brutal) film which, if nothing else, gave me insight into the world of hooliganism, although I'm sure it's still a far cry from the real world. I know a lot of British viewers were scornful of Hunnam's Cockney accent, but to these untrained American ears, it sounded all right. Clich├ęs abound, but none so grievous as to mar my enjoyment of the film.

Alchemy: Romantic comedy about a computer science professor (Tom Cavanaugh) who tries to save his career by staging an experiment pitting his A.I. against another professor in an effort to win a woman's heart (Sarah Chalke). Goofy, inoffensive, mildly predictable film that suffers from low production value but engages because of the charisma of its leads. Mindless fluff, but in an entertaining way.

The Big White: Still another dark comedy, this time about an Alaskan businessman (Robin Williams) so desperate to claim his long-lost brother's life insurance policy that he uses a dead body dumped by his business to stage insurance fraud, which leads to complications in the form of a relentless fraud investigator (Giovanni Ribissi), the two hitmen responsible for the dead body (Tim Blake Nelson and W. Earl "Dan on Deadwood" Brown), and the prodigal brother who isn't too happy about being declared dead (Woody Harrelson); throw in the businessman's looney-tunes wife (Holly Hunter), and mucho mohoohoo ensues. Or at least, that seems to be the intent. As for the actual execution, well, to me it all felt a bit off. While I like the entire ensemble (which also includes the lovely and talented Alison Lohman as Giovanni's phone-psychic girlfriend), something about the film just didn't gel with me. There were some laugh out loud moments here and there, most of them associated with the foul-mouthed Hunter and the ditzy Lohman, but on the whole the comedy fell flat . . . although, I did feel like the entire film was almost worth it just for Giovanni's reaction to Williams’s speech at the end; priceless.

The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things: Disturbing film about the havoc wreaked in a young boy's life when he's abducted from foster care by his druggie, paranoid, trailer park prostitute mother. Sounds really uplifting, huh? Based on the "memoirs" of J.T. LeRoy, who may or may not be a real person, this movie is pretty much guaranteed to leave you feeling all slimy and dirty inside; there are hardly any characters with redeeming qualities at all. Instead, we get to see young Jeremiah subject to abuse in all its myriad forms: mental, physical, sexual, pharmacological, spiritual, etc. Tons of star cameos in this (Kip Pardue, Winona Ryder, Ben Foster, Jeremy Sisto, Peter Fonda, and the nigh-unrecognizable Michael Pitt as obviously mentally disadvantaged Buddy), and all of the actors give fine performances, but the film as a whole did next to nothing for me; too much dark in this one, not enough comedy in this piece of transgressional fiction, I suppose.