November 28, 2009

At Least 'Ruins' Had Some Nice Scenery

When a good movie tells me the world is flat, I believe it.

When a bad movie tells me the world is round, I don't.

Such was the case with My Life in Ruins, director Donald Petrie's dreadful Nia Vardalos vehicle from earlier this year--perhaps the most disingenuous film I've seen in 2009. Certainly, it had all the ingredients for an enjoyable flick: a breezy cast (including the effervescent Vardalos, who was so terrific in 2002's My Big Fat Greek Wedding, as well as Richard Dreyfuss and a host of other character actors), a glorious setting (the lovely streets and architecture, old and new, of Athens) and a potentially charming little plot (wannabe college professor Vardalos works as tour guide for crummy company and finds love in a surprising place).

Unfortunately, nothing worked. And I think I figured out why.

Vardalos didn't write it.

Perhaps that would've made all the difference, as it did in the cute MBFGW. Because the biggest problem with Ruins is its flat, cardboard script, generated by someone named Mike Reiss. The laughs are minimal; the bathos is apparent. Worst of all, the flick descends into what I call the "friends syndrome," an ailment that usually affects bad romantic comedies by providing the protagonists with supposedly empathetic friends who do little but support their buddies during their amorous adventures. In the case of Ruins, this job falls to Dreyfuss, playing a crude, obnoxious widower tourist with a big heart and a lot of cheesy advice on love that trickles out of him like butter oozing from chicken Kiev.

As Mad Magazine's Alfred E. Neuman would say, "Ecch!"

Sadly, Reiss and director Petrie paint Dreyfuss' character, as well as the others, in two dimensions rather than three. I just didn't care, and the purported development--in which Vardalos discovers the wisecracking Duddy, I mean Dreyfuss, to be suffering owing to his wife's recent demise--rings fake. This becomes especially appalling when the film enters The Bathetic Zone, after Dreyfuss' alter kocker is hospitalized (presumably for overacting) and then is visited by his entire tour group.

Come on, folks. Does every lousy romcom have to descend to this purportedly "dramatic" madness?

Oddly enough, the film Ruins most reminded me of was the dismal With Honors, another disingenuous flick that encouraged us to care about its tiresome, unpleasant characters while providing a Doomed Wise Man (in WH's case, played in the most over-the-top manner by Joe Pesci) as a dramatic crutch. Same treatment, different setting.

And I guess that was the element that elevated Ruins to a height just above the usual dreck. Trudi and I enjoyed watching the shots of Greece and figured if the movie comprised solely that, it would be a much greater film.

Maybe we should've just watched the Travel Channel. Eh bien.

November 21, 2009

On Family, Loss and 'Mother Night'

I think my cousin's matured into a fine filmmaker.

That was my reaction after seeing Mother Night, director Keith Gordon's adaptation of the eponymous Kurt Vonnegut novel. Gordon, an auteur who these days works primarily in TV, is a director whose works have intrigued me for some time--dating back to his interesting 1988 adaptation of the Robert Cormier book The Chocolate War.

Of course, there's another reason why his films have been on my radar. He's my cousin...although, admittedly, one I've never met.

Strangely enough, my ex-wife once admitted having a crush on Gordon during his days as an actor, when he starred in movies such as Christine and Back to School. Not sure if that has something to do with the distinctive visages so prevalent on my mother's side (the area of the family whence Gordon came), but I thought it was an interesting aside.

What's more interesting, however, is the talent that Gordon has summoned up--both internally and externally--for Mother Night, a film I wasn't prepared to like.

The story, concerning an American playwright (played superbly by Nick Nolte) who is recruited during World War II as a double-agenty spy in an effort to transmit code disguised as anti-Semitic rants from Germany to the United States, has a fascinating subtext: that of lost identity, and the ingratitude following anonymous service. Gordon films the proceedings sumptuously, in painterly tones, switching to black-and-white at times a la Lindsay Anderson's If..... The ironic quality of the tale is enhanced by some excellent, solemn music by Michael Convertino that seems to echo Javier Navarrete's score for Pan's Labyrinth. But the real star is the script, adapted wonderfully by Robert B. Weide from Vonnegut's work. It's a dark, melancholy screenplay, negative but not inhuman, and cognizant of the inextricable forces that bind people within unwinnable situations. It's very nicely done.

Which is not to say that there aren't any issues with the film. It's not completely clear why Nolte's character, Howard Campbell, takes the spy role in the first place, as he admits to being a man without politics. And Gordon sometimes gets a bit too fancy with his direction, especially in a scene between Campbell and his recruiter in which the camera circles the duo as it did in Hitchcock's Vertigo...albeit with less intrigue. (I have to admit: I'm not a big fan of the ever-popular camera-circling technique, as I feel it generally detracts from the goings-on in the scene.)

Still, Mother Night is a distinctive, unusual work and deserves to be better known. I'd say my cousin has grown up a lot from his days in Back to School. But that's what happens with talent: It matures with age. Now we have to see where it goes from here.

November 17, 2009

'Rififi' Proves Me Wrong Once Again

This might be the 2,000th time I've been off base about a great movie.

For some reason, I was under the mistaken impression that the downbeat ending of Jule Dassin's 1955 jewel-heist thriller en francais Rififi would make for gloomy evening viewing.

Boy, was I wrong.

What a masterpiece. Just brilliant. I had last seen it many years ago and remembered the daring half-hour robbery scene that features no dialogue and only incidental sound, but that was only one part of this terrific film...though it was as extraordinary as ever. The frank dialogue, vivid characterizations and ugly realism were striking, and the wonderful music (by Georges Auric, who also did the superb score for Jean Cocteau's La Belle et la Bete, among others) and gorgeous, stark black-and-white photography (by Philippe Agostini, whose shots reminded me of Robert Krasker's stunning lenswork in The Third Man and Odd Man Out) augmented the picture. And yes, the ending was downbeat, but warranted within the context of the film; instead of having a negative effect, it had a positive all great movies do.

And that's the purpose of watching a good movie, isn't it? To be uplifted?

A bad movie makes me feel, well, bad. A good movie makes me elated.

Rififi did just that.

So next time, I think I'll ignore any inner voice that tells me to avoid a great film just because of its ending. The path that gets me there is worth the cost.

And I'm all about the road that should be taken.

November 15, 2009

Lock Up Your Baubles: 'Rififi' Is Up Next

Here it is, the original jewel-heist-gone-awry movie...and I just can't bear to watch it.

Yes, Jules Dassin's 1955 classic Rififi has landed, en Francais, at chez Butler, fresh from the halls of Netflix. I haven't seen it in years, though I remember it with a fondness, especially the fabled "no talking" theft sequence.

The trouble is, I also remember the ending, which is a real downer. Warranted in the context of the film, of course, but not happy.

I don't wanna see "not happy" tonight.

OK, so I've been slumming a bit. Last evening, I saw a bit of Mark Lester's 1985 squib-fest Commando, which happened to be on cable and was one of the films that required the least amount of thought at 11 p.m. Eastern Standard Time. There were no concerns about the amount of melancholy in that flick--especially since I didn't care about the characters enough to worry about whether things would turn out all right in the end. (Not that it matters.)

That was then, however. This

UPDATE: Trudi has just informed me that she wants to see Rififi. Looks like we're gonna watch it tonight. I'll keep you posted.

November 13, 2009

Dialing 'S' for 'Stagy'

When will everyone start to realize that Alfred Hitchcock's 1954 thriller Dial M for Murder just isn't the classic that it should be?

Sure, it has Grace Kelly, luminous as always. Sure it has a terrific murder scene featuring a strategically placed scissors. Sure it has some great camerawork and quintessentially Hitch angles (such as the "I'm Looking at the Action from Above" perspective).

But unfortunately, the film never works for me--perhaps because it's derived from the eponymous play by Frederick Knott (who also wrote the script). And I can't get past the fact that the action in the film almost always seems stage-bound, as if all the tricks in Hitch's book couldn't make the goings-on cinematic.

One thing I noticed on my most recent viewing of DMFM is that there are some interesting long takes that feature a heckuva lot of talking. And I mean a lot. This is a Hitchy-like thing to do as well; after all, he featured it in 1948's Rope. But Rope seems like more of an experiment, while DMFM just makes the impression (at least on me) that it's a misfire. It's too stagy, too confined. It seems the actors aren't allowed to breathe like they often do in the Master's greatest films.

And yet--although I don't have the statistics to prove it--DMFM seems to come up on TV more frequently than The 39 Steps or The Lady Vanishes...two Hitchcock classics that use dialogue in the best, freest way possible, are completely cinematic (despite some camera trickery used to convey location) and are among the director's best films.

Something's rotten in the state of TV, methinks. But what else is new?

November 07, 2009

Settling Down with Wallace, Gromit

Revisiting animator Nick Park's extraordinary Wallace and Gromit shorts is like watching a great Bugs Bunny cartoon for the first time since your childhood.

You marvel at the subtlety of the animation: the movements, the camerawork. You relish the fine characterization that makes the flick come alive.

And you wonder why you ever stopped watching the thing in the first place.

That's how it was after re-viewing Park's triumvirate of terrific W&G shorts with Trudi: A Grand Day Out, The Wrong Trousers and A Close Shave. These beautiful films, which I had seen for the first time in the 1990s at Spike & Mike's Festival of Animation in New York, are little masterpieces--classic romps in which the cheese-obsessed, slightly dotty inventor Wallace and his faithful dog, Gromit (one of the greatest, most expressive silent characters in film, in my opinion...on a par with Charlie Chaplin and Jacques Tati, despite the dog's animated aspect) visit the moon, take in a paying (penguin) guest and explore the world of sheep rustling, respectively.

If you haven't experienced these worlds before, I envy you. You still have a first time to do it.

And if you have viewed them previously, I encourage you to revisit them. I think I'll do so every so often, from now on. Everything--from Park's superb modelwork to the charming, almost-too-good-for-a-cartoon scores by Julian Nott--works brilliantly, and you'll be as satisfied at the end of each film as you'd be following a date with an old friend over tea.

With some fine Wensleydale cheese, of course. I think Bugs Bunny would approve of that.