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Monday, December 31, 2012

Killer Joe

Desperate people acting on the most primal motivations: money, power, and sex. That's the basis for all great noir films, and that dynamic is heavily represented in William Friedkin's excellent Killer Joe, a Texas-fried update on the classic style of noir masters like James M. Cain.

Killer Joe centers on the twisted murder-for-insurance money scheme cooked up by the Smith family, whose four IQs added together would struggle to crack 300. Chris (Emile Hirsch, in a role unlike anything I've ever seen him in) is a low-level drug dealer who finds himself in debt to his bosses after his good-for-nothing mother steals some of his cocaine before he can sell it. Informed of his mother's $50,000 life-insurance policy, with his younger sister Dottie (Juno Temple) as sole beneficiary, Chris hatches a plan to kill his mother.

Chris is frighteningly stupid, but even he knows he can't get away with murder, so he lures in his father Ansel (Thomas Haden Church) and the two of them hire Killer Joe (Matthew McConaughey), a police detective who moonlights as a hitman. (Joe's day-job, he explains to Dottie, is often a "convenience", especially when he is assigned to investigate his own crimes.)

This set-up is fairly boilerplate for noir, though McConaughey's eerie energy elevates the film's initial scenes. What kicks the film into high gear, however, is when McConaughey, who initially refuses to do the job on the promise of being paid when the insurance comes through, changes his mind as long as he is paid a retainer. That retainer isn't cash, but the entirely innocent Dottie, whom Joe has taken a liking too.

Every scene between McConaughey and Temple crackles with anticipation. McConaughey's single-minded coolness gives way to an inner demon more perverse than seemingly possible, while Temple's Dottie is naive and dim-witted but also curious about sex and willing to learn from the one of the worst teachers imaginable.

It wouldn't be a noir if the whole thing didn't come crashing down in a frenzy of violence and death, and Killer Joe is most certainly noir. The downward action contains a number of twists which are perhaps predictable but Friedkin and screenwriter Tracy Letts layer the plot with nearly unbearable perversion and creepiness, as a scorned Killer Joe confronts the Smiths in an epically disturbing conclusion, with one more twist that I certainly didn't see coming.

Friday, December 21, 2012

My Favorite Christmas Movie

The discussion of favorite Christmas X,Y, or Z comes up every year, and because there haven't really been a lot of great examples of the genre in recent decades, and because too many people tend to casually dismiss works of art from time periods before their own cultural awareness dawned, lately the annual round of blog posts celebrating Christmas movies have taken on a distressing similarity. Many film or pop-culture bloggers, typically male, have taken to christening "Die Hard" the 1988 Bruce Willis cop thriller, as the best Christmas movie of all time. I see this all the time, and my default reaction at this point is just scream "No! No! NO!" and pound my fists on the table. Clearly, I'm an emotionally mature adult.

I should hope I don't have to point out the faulty reasoning inherent in naming Die Hard the greatest Christmas movie, but I will because this is exactly the kind of things blogs were made for. First, Die Hard isn't the greatest anything, not even the best Die Hard. Die Hard with a Vengeance is basically the same movie with a lot more trivia, logic puzzles and Samuel L. Jackson (who plays a character named Zeus solely for the benefit of one single "Hey, Zeus!" joke.)

Secondly, Die Hard is not a Christmas movie. The fact that the events of the film take place at Christmas time are not particularly necessary to the story the movie is trying to tell. It's a coincidence, or more accurately a choice made out of convenience. Die Hard is not about Christmas is any meaningful way.

As for my own favorite Christmas movie, it was for many years the Jimmy Stewart classic It's a Wonderful Life, which is still the only movie guaranteed to make me cry at every viewing. (Multiple scenes can set off the waterworks, but I always lose it when Harry Bailey toasts, "To my big brother George, the richest man in town!")

However, a few years ago I watched the black and white version of Miracle on 47th Street, which NBC used to always air after the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade, for the first time since I was a kid. Really paying attention to the movie reveals to be a remarkably well-constructed examination of the holiday itself, our collective need to imbue the end of the year celebration with a sense of magic and goodness, at the possible expense of our collective sanity. It is the quintessential Christmas movie.

When a sweet old grandfatherly man calling himself Kris Kringle (Edmund Gwenn) fills in for a drunken Santa at the Macy's parade, he becomes an instant hit and is hired to play the role for the season at the department store by put-upon single mother Doris Walker (Maureen O'Hara). Doris has raised her daughter Susan (Natalie Wood) to be a practical little girl and not believe in fairy tales or other such nonsense. The Walker's neighbor Fred is an idealistic young lawyer who doesn't see the harm in believing in things.

Everything goes great at first, as Kringle's big-hearted disposition fills even capatalistic Mr. Macy with the spirit of giving. But then an interfering psychologist provokes Kringle into an outburst, leading to his commitment and trial. Represented at the trial by Fred, Kringle's fate hinges on the young lawyer's ability to prove to the court of law that his client is the real Santa Claus.

The courtroom scenes are really thrilling, but when I was younger I didn't see what was really going on. It's easy to watch and think of Miracle on 34th Street as just another one of those movies with a feel-good ending where everyone decides to believe again, a la Tim Allen's Santa Clause movies.

But really, Fred's brilliance is less legal than psychological and political. He slowly destroys the prosecution's case by relying on the shared cultural construct of the Santa Claus myth. He gets the prosecutor to admit that there really is a Santa Claus by confronting him with his own son's belief in the man. He gets a respected man like Mr. Macy to admit to his belief in Kris Kringle because Macy is worried about loss of sales. The judge in the case, acting upon the advice of his political bosses, is unwilling to rule against Santa Claus lest a lot of angry parents toss him out of office. The finishing touch of the Post Office delivering Santa's mail is really just a convenient out for the judge. The real cause for Kringle's win is our collective need for Christmas to have a meaning beyond presents.

The movie plays it a little coy too, for the children. Susan gets the house she wanted for Christmas, with Kringle's cane in the corner indicating that he had something to do with them finding it. But the movie makes it pretty clear this isn't actually a gift. Fred's closing line, "Maybe I didn't do such a great thing, after all." could be seen as him admitting it wasn't too hard to prove Kris Kringle was really Santa, but really, he's also quite likely realized that Kringle isn't quite as all there as he appears.

Miracle on 34th Street is such a winning, affirmative movie, that it's easy to miss how perceptive it is about the reasons for the season. It's so easy to miss, that the people who remade the movie in the '90s managed to excise all the wit and intelligence out of the screenplay, somehow managing to turn the best Christmas movie of all time into just another holiday film. But the original is so good it can not be tarnished.

Monday, December 17, 2012

How I Met Your Mother: "The Final Page"

It's been an up-and-mostly-down season of How I Met Your Mother, and "The Final Page" had it's fair share of both. These last few seasons have seen the show constantly struggle to produce genuine laughs while usually having much less trouble provoking genuine emotion. At this point the show could essentially pass as a romantic drama with a penchant for indulging in cringe-worthy silliness.

So it was that in "The Final Page" the comedic bits largely fell flat, with the notable exception of Neil Patrick Harris's expert physical comedy in the first half-hour. The episode was nearly derailed by the shoe-horned appearance of Seth Green's character, a creepy hanger-on that Marshall and Lily lack the ability to tell off. Green's character was far too over-the-top to be credible, and his presence was an unwelcome distraction. Peter Gallagher was not much better as Ted's old college professor, but at least Ted's yearning for approval felt realistic and relatable.

The second half-hour largely bypassed humor and went straight about the business of wrapping up the loose ends the show has to get through before the end of the year. I think most fans of the show saw the Barney-Patrice relationship for exactly what it was, so it was more of a relief than a surprise to see Barney's proposal and Robin's acceptance of same. Had we not known well ahead of time that these two would be heading down the aisle, this scene might have packed more of a punch, but it also might have opened the character's behavior up to more scrutiny. As is, there's still something icky to me about the way the show treats Patrice as something less than a full-fledged human being. I hope that at some point the show will address this, even if it's just one of Ted's narrative asides: "Oh by the way, Patrice met a nice guy who liked her for her and is very happy." Something like that.

Much more poignant than the proposal was the scene leading up to it, which was an unforgettable display of dramatic acting prowess by both Josh Radnor and Cobie Smulders. Their argument in the limo, over whether Robin should go after Barney one last time, was overlaid with the long history between the two characters, all of which was imparted through implication and gesture instead of outright exposition. It was a masterful scene.

When the show comes back in the new year, with it's fate for a possible ninth season hanging in the balance, here's hoping we get more character moments like that limo scene, and maybe a few more laughs as well. After all, this is still supposed to be a comedy.


Though it's 112-minute run time breezes by, Ted eventually reveals itself as an artless take on the romantic comedy bolstered only by the flashy high-concept premise of it's title character, a brash, foul-mouthed, talking Teddy Bear. You get the sense that writer-director Seth MacFarlane and the rest of the creative people involved put in very little effort past the initial idea. Literally everything outside of the talking teddy bear is a repeat of the same lazy cliches and character tropes you find in every romantic comedy.

Mark Wahlberg's John Bennett is an overgrown man-child with a do-nothing job at a car rental agency. He likes getting high and watching DVDs with his buddies, just like a typical Type B male lead, except in this case his only buddy is his childhood teddy bear, turned real by the magic of his Christmas wish.

Somehow, John has found himself in a four-year relationship with Lori, a public relations agent played by Mila Kunis. Because this is a movie decidedly written by and for the male audience, Lori is a ball-buster who is largely framed as an antagonist for wanting John to behave more responsibly and make more of an effort. She also wants Ted to move out.

The rest of the film follows John as he constantly chooses fun and adventure, much of it drug-induced and dangerous, with Ted over spending time with his long-suffering, much younger, way more successful, and more attractive girlfriend. A well-paced and constructed action sequence leading to the movie's climax brushes past the part of the movie where Lori forgives John and accepts him for who he is for no discernible reason.

It should not be surprising that the creator of Family Guy relies on pop-cultural references and politically-incorrect statements for humor, but for some reason it was still disappointing to see it in feature-length. All of the jokes in Ted are disposable, and less than 24 hours later I'm having a tough time remembering any of them in detail.

Ted is the kind of movie that thinks it's hilarious just to bring up the 1980 movie Flash Gordon, and that bringing its star Sam J. Jones in for a cameo just ratchets up the laughs exponentially. It's cheap, one-note, and hacky comedy. Of course it made a killing at the box office and for the next decade or so people will keep telling you it's one of their favorite movies.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Save the Date

The characters in Michael Mohan's feature Save The Date may be going through what so many Twitter users derisively call "white people problems" (or #whitepeopleproblems, as it were) but the emotionally honest performances by the talented cast enable the movie to rise above such complaints. Though the script takes a few unfortunate shortcuts and doesn't do enough to establish its central character, Save the Date is still a satisfying, low-key indie movie.

Lizzy Caplan and Alison Brie plays sisters who are both facing questions about their relationships as they near the time when everyone expects them to settle down and start their own families. Brie's Beth is engaged and planning her wedding to Martin Starr's Andrew, a drummer in a band who can't be bothered to have an opinion about place settings or organic catering. Caplan's Sarah is about to reluctantly move in with her boyfriend Kevin (Geoffrey Arend), Andrew's band-mate.

The opening scenes, featuring Caplan packing up all her belongings, including the still-dirty dishes in her sink, are indicative of quirky comedy, a type of film Save the Date never actually becomes, unless you find heartbreak and emotional honesty just gut-bustingly hilarious.

The turn toward the dramatic occurs when Kevin, despite prudent advice from Andrew and Beth, proposes to Sarah after a gig. Arend's performance as Caplan walks away in silent anger is agonizingly good. His crushing despair is shockingly credible.

From there the film navigates the fallout of the breakup through its impact on Beth's and Andrew's engagement and Sarah's new relationship with Mark Webber's Jonathan, a marine biologist (yes, really) who patronizes her bookstore just to get a look at her. Because you see, when you do it in a movie, it's not creepy.

This is a film that is really little more than a showpiece for some talented actors who otherwise don't get anything but supporting roles in studio comedies. It's nice to see them get a chance to show off their full range, even if they had to settle for a less-than-great script to get that chance. Caplan's character in particular is underdeveloped on the page, as her fear of commitment and need to preserve her independence are never explored or explained. The lack of proximate cause makes her seem not worth all the trouble she puts Kevin and Jonathan through, but they keep insisting on how special she is. Other than looking like Lizzy Caplan, what does she bring to the table?

The film is also soured a little by its not quite a cop-out but still frustrating ending, which seems to be trying to satisfy a larger audience while still paying lip service to its indie base. It's wholly unsatisfying as a story resolution, but by that point you've likely realized you're watching to see Caplan, not to find out what happens to her character.