Monday, June 28, 2010

Critical Thinking: In Bruges (2008)

Critical Thinking is a column where I review something I've just watched (usually something I like). No other reason. It doesn't really need a name but I gave it one anyway, since it's different from Cheap Thrills, and I hear things on blogs should have names.

David Mamet once said that a film's developments should be both "surprising and inevitable". This strikes me as the perfect summation of good entertainment, and few movies embody this advice as clearly as Martin McDonagh's In Bruges, which I am revisiting thanks to its long-overdue debut on Blu-Ray here in the United States.

The setup: a pair of hitmen named Ken (Brendan Gleeson) and Ray (Colin Farrell) have just arrived in the Belgian city of Bruges (roughly pronounced "brooj"), on orders from their employer, Harry (Ralph Fiennes), following a botched job. Ken is perfectly pleased to look at all of the medieval architecture; Ray would rather kill himself. "Do you think this is good? Goin' around in a boat, looking at stuff?" he demands of his partner. Ken does. "Ray, you're about the worst tourist in the whole world."

Innocuously hidden within the first ten or fifteen minutes is a prime example of Mamet's theory. In case the reader hasn't already seen In Bruges, I won't go into too much detail, but Ken goes to the city's biggest tourist attraction: a giant tower in the center of the city. Unable to get rid of his coins (ten cents short), he pays in cash and heads to the top, where he spots Ray down below, only minutes away from getting into a fight with a group of overweight Americans. The relevant information is not only organically buried in scenes that are interesting and funny in and of themselves, but even the most forward-thinking viewer will find that when the scene's major callback occurs, McDonagh has already devised a way to subvert the audience's expectations.

Ray is depressed over the events that sent he and Ken to Bruges in the first place, and Farrell's performance is surprisingly emotional, and not just sadness. Ray is a man who is all surface and no center, without any room on the inside for feelings. He wears them all with childlike earnestness on his rubbery face, veering from delighted to grumpy at the drop of a hat. In particular, he is delighted by the luminous Chloë (a sweet and sexy Clémence Poésy), a drug dealer offering her services to crew on the film shooting in Bruges, and Jimmy (Jordan Prentice), a little person playing an ever-changing role in the film's elaborate, pretentious dream sequence. Ken, meanwhile, is placed in a position of action, and has a quiet internal debate about what decision would be best for everyone. Ken is both noble and a realist, two qualities that work against each other.

Many of the people I've shown the film to have labeled it a downer, but I feel that's failing to see the forest for the trees. It is more about the attitude with which the characters deal with the events of the film than it is the events themselves, and Ray particularly sets the tone. The last lines of dialogue can be interpreted as sad and distant, especially taken in with the music and idea of what's happened, but viewers who listen carefully should see the humor in it, particularly if they're an optimist. The film's comedy is also quite goofy. Ken snapping at Ray's refusal to go see an exhibit ("It's only Jesus Christ's blood! Of course you don't fuckin' hafta!"), Jimmy and his ludicrous prophecy about a "war between the blacks and the whites", and Ray's almost existential hatred of everything about Bruges and what it stands for are all a wonderful counterpoint to the film's artful cinematography and picturesque setting. And that's all before Fiennes' character actually appears on screen. His Harry is a misanthropic, bomb-like force of nature whom Ken accurately sums up as an eternal cunt. "I mean no disrespect, but you're a cunt. You're a cunt now, and you've always been a cunt. And the only thing that's going to change is that you're going to be an even bigger cunt," he says, straight to the man's face. Harry does not disagree.

I missed the movie in theaters thanks to Focus Features' misguided ad campaign that tried to cram McDonagh's darkly witty farce into the same crowd-pleasing package as Guy Ritchie's rollicking Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels or Snatch. McDonagh's style is generally much more naturalistic, with his only real "movie-esque" flourishes coming at the end, including an absolutely perfect sequence set to Luke Kelly's "On Raglan Road", and a climax so logical it practically seems like reflex rather than writing, yet so nutty you can't believe you're actually seeing it; in other words, a vivid illustration of Mamet's advice in action.

The Blu-Ray is a disappointment. The A/V quality is fine and a visible step up from the DVD in all regards, but there are actually extras missing from the SD-DVD. Since I don't believe I've gone back in time to the birth of the format, there's really no excuse for this, particularly when I was hoping Universal might see fit to track down McDonagh for a commentary in light of the film's Oscar nod for Best Original Screenplay, and perhaps throw in "Six Shooter", his Academy Award-winning short film that also stars Gleeson. Clearly, my sights were set too high.

[In Bruges on IMDb]

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Critical Thinking: Grosse Pointe Blank (1997)

Critical Thinking is a column where I review something I've just watched (usually something I like). No other reason. It doesn't really need a name but I gave it one anyway, since it's different from Cheap Thrills, and I hear things on blogs should have names.

On June 4th, the Katherine Heigl/Ashton Kutcher film Killers was inflicted upon us. Heigl plays the anti-woman's woman, i.e. a chipper, moronic, blonde beauty who can't do anything remotely masculine and needs men to rescue her from her own incompetence. Her mundane, career-focused, flighty existence is interrupted by the appearance of Ashton Kutcher. I reviewed Marley & Me for DVDTalk, and the first sight of Eric Dane, who looks like this, playing the role of an underpaid newspaper columnist, made me laugh out loud. Kutcher is supposedly a badass spy in Killers, which basically inspires the same reaction except with full-body nausea instead of laughter. Three weeks later, June finished up with the opening of Knight and Day, in which Tom Cruise plays the spy and Cameron Diaz plays the blonde (25% as ditzy, 75% as shrieky). I had high hopes, but it was a misfire in my book (you can read my whole review here).

Most people would point to Mr. & Mrs. Smith and True Lies as obvious recommendations for an alternative to these films, and these two examples are undoubtedly more inspired by those movies than the one I'm reviewing, but Mr. & Mrs. Smith isn't all that good, and True Lies -- easily the best of the four -- still gets terribly sidetracked by Bill Paxton's character, and is only barely more progressive when it comes to Jamie Lee Curtis' character than Killers (at least Curtis' performance appears to be intentional slapstick comedy, like a "Saturday Night Live" caricature).

No, my pick is the popular but still underrated Grosse Pointe Blank. John Cusack plays Martin Blank, a casual hitman who ends up in his hometown to do a job on the same weekend of his 10-year high school reunion. For most of those ten years, he's had a recurring nightmare about his choice to abandon his girlfriend Debi (Minnie Driver), and the weekend offers Martin a once-in-a-lifetime chance to track her down and make amends.

Re-watching the film with friends this weekend, I think the key to Grosse Pointe Blank's success is that, unlike the other films in question, there's more going on here than the central conceit of putting romance and bullets in the same movie. In the relatively simple paragraph above, I've outlined not one, not two, but all three of the movie's storylines: Martin returns home after a decade away for the reunion, Martin reunites with Debi for the first time after his vanishing act, and Martin the hitman starts looking for a way out. Like a well-oiled machine, all three of these stories work in tandem with each other while remaining loose enough to switch in and out of center stage as the movie needs them. I was bored during the first twenty or thirty minutes of Knight and Day because the trailers completely sum up the Cruise character and concept in thirty seconds. There are side notes about Diaz's character fixing her father's GTO and the wedding her sister is having, but the movie doesn't try to flesh these out into parallels or even brief tangents to the story. Comparatively, there's more than enough room in Blank for Martin to go on a drive with his old friend Paul Spericki (Jeremy Piven) or visit his childhood home without these scenes feeling like a distraction from more important things.

Director George Armitage has an odd career. After directing four films in the '70s, he vanished for a decade, reappearing in 1990 as the writer/director of one project and the writer of another. Passion projects, maybe. Then, he took another 6-year hiatus before making Blank. Afterwards, he didn't work until 2004's The Big Bounce, and has since been laying low, other than a "special thanks" on a 2010 movie called Joy Division. Having seen a couple of his '70s efforts recently, he doesn't appear to have much of a personal vision, but he still seems like he's more than an assembly-line guy. Even if he didn't respond to the material in a personal way, one gets the impression he was invested creatively, keeping things basic but not boring, engaging with his fellow cast and crew. There are a couple clever little shots, like a quick pull back to reveal a banner that Paul is leaping for, but Armitage's main contribution is probably the one of the whole film. This is a story about a violent hitman, but it never seems that gruesome, despite going all-out with an R-rating and at least one reasonably bloody death. If Grosse Pointe Blank were made today, it's hard to imagine the romantic and comedic lead of a film being allowed to do anything as intimately violent as stabbing a man with a pen for fear of losing the audience's sympathy, yet there's no sense that Armitage has to work to keep our relationship with Martin alive through the entire incident.

Another aspect of that light tone is the sexy chemistry between Cusack and Driver. Cusack is basically his usual self, but Driver brings plenty of little touches to the equation that make their relationship believable. In many movies like this, Debi would practically be a side character in comparison to Martin, but Driver fleshes her out with enough pathos and neuroses that she feels like his equal, having her own decade of uncertainty after he disappeared without a trace. Martin brings out the playful side of Debi, but this time around she's got her guard up.

The film is filled with a host of side characters, and it's nice how the picture manages to fit all of them in without going all over the map. Aside from Piven's Paul, Joan Cusack is Martin's assistant, who deals with the customers and answers the phones, Hank Azaria and K. Todd Freeman play two government agents looking to blot out Blank if they see him doing any misdeeds, Alan Arkin has several scenes as Martin's stressed-out psychologist, Benny Urquidez is a hitman looking to get revenge on Blank for the death of a prized dog, and Dan Aykroyd plays the movie's villain, a fellow assassin named Grocer who wants Blank to join his union of hired killers. There's also a whole host of characters at the eventual reunion, including Jenna Elfman as a woman who saw the other side, and Michael Cudlitz -- a scene-stealer if there ever was one -- as coke-snorting BMW salesman Bob Destepello. All of these people feel like they're cut from the same comedic cloth as the main characters, which is almost miraculous given how broad some of them are allowed to be. As a lifetime Ghostbusters fan, it hurts me to say that if any of them are a weak link, it might actually be Aykroyd, whose insistently cheery schtick toes the waters of "cartoonish", but I don't quite have a problem with it.

The third act leans on a tiny bit of script convenience, Azaria and Freeman are kind of written off, and the movie stops a touch abruptly, but these are minor nitpicks. The movie has more than enough goodwill to coast by then, and the ending is no cop-out, giving us one of the few "armchair psychology" epiphanies that actually feels organic and believable, allowing for a resolution that is satisfying instead of just relieving. Being a shootout, it lacks the intimacy of the film's high points, but the characters are intact, and it packs a nice punch. Grosse Pointe Blank is a great romance and a solid action movie featuring an entire cast's worth of well-written, well-performed characters, in a setting (the reunion) with some universal comedic appeal, and it accomplishes all it sets out to with enough ease to make you wonder: why exactly is this kind of movie so hard to make?

I was sure that 2007 was the year for Blank. The movie takes place at a 10-year high school reunion, so a 10th Anniversary DVD with an anamorphic transfer is a given, right? The year came and went, and even through to today, the only thing that's changed is that fans can now pick up the same old letterboxed transfer with a useless Digital Copy disc. Until Buena Vista opts to issue the film on Blu-Ray, I suggest people track down the 2-Movie Collectionwith High Fidelity, another great Cusack picture. There's also the film War, Inc., which reunites John, Joan and Dan in a worlds-apart scenario with a very similar tone. A few interviews hint that War, Inc. may have been written as a Grosse Pointe Blank sequel, but Disney wouldn't license the rights. On the other hand, I haven't seen it, so I can't vouch for it.

[Grosse Pointe Blank at IMDb]