Friday, August 24, 2007

House of Games: The Criterion Collection

I´m not going to scam you: I can´t stand "House of Games." I know it is a cult favorite, and finds a place both on Roger Ebert´s Great Movies list and in Jonathan Rosenbaum´s "Essential Cinema" canon, not to mention just about every book titled "101 Movies You Have To See Before You Die" or anything remotely similar. Nonetheless, I first watched it on VHS many years ago, and even after a second viewing on this excellent DVD release from Criterion, I still find it nearly unbearable.

There are several hurdles to clear before one can appreciate David Mamet´s directorial debut, chief among them being the acting style. It´s tempting to describe the acting as "theatrical" since Mamet had already earned his coin on the stage before jumping behind the camera (he had also previously written screenplays for "The Verdict" and the 1981 remake of "The Postman Rings Twice.") But that description doesn´t do justice to the bewildering performances in this film. As in most of Mamet´s films, all of the characters speak in the same voice, pouncing on each other´s lines and repeating the same phrases over and over.

But in "House of Games," more so than in any other Mamet film, the characters speak in dull, flat tones, as if they are reading lines off a cue card just off camera; the readings are so stiff and stilted one sometimes wonders if they are foreign speakers being asked to phoneticize English words. Lead actress Lindsay Crouse (as Dr. Maggie Ford, champion psychiatrist and sucker-in-the-making) is so robotic, I´d be willing to wager that Jeri Ryan used her as a model when crafting the role of Seven of Nine. This isn´t a mistake, of course, but rather a stylistic choice on Mamet´s part, and if you can accept or even acclimatize to these idiosyncratic performances, you are much more likely to enjoy the film. I was never able to make that leap.

Another hurdle is the film´s Byzantine plot, concerning the machinations of a group of con men trying to make a fast buck at the expense of several other characters, Dr. Maggie Ford among them. Any detailed plot summation will spoil the film, so I will summarize briefly. In order to save one of her patients from a debt, Dr. Ford wanders into a nightclub where a group of con men operate; the strait-laced psychiatrist and best-selling author quickly becomes enamored of life on the wild side, and falls hard for the ring leader Mike (Joe Mantegna.) She becomes a vicarious participant in a series of scams, ostensibly acting as an objective reporter gathering material for her next book, but secretly getting her kicks from being a naughty, naughty girl.

In an early scene, Joe (Mike Nussbaum) demonstrates a classic bread and butter con known as "the Flue" which involves scamming a helpless clerk and pawning a twenty. The scam is brilliant in it simplicity, but the film´s big con (which I won´t spoil here) is anything but simple, requiring an extraordinary amount of time to unfold, and relying on perfect timing, a series of coincidences, and the ability to perfectly predict precisely how another person will react in a certain situation. The film´s fans believe the big con to be clever as hell, but I found it totally unconvincing precisely because it´s too damned clever for its own good. Surely the con man operates by the K.I.S.S. principle, and would never design something so elaborate it is doomed to collapse under its own weight. Mamet falls in love with the idea of repeatedly pulling the rug out from under the audience, an approach to story-telling which I have never enjoyed, Christopher Nolan´s "The Prestige" being the most recent irritating example.

I have argued the "con" case to this con-job, but "House of Games" has its high points as well. Out of all the strange performances, Joe Mantegna creates the most convincing character as the charming bad guy Mike. And any film that sports Ricky Jay in its cast can´t possibly be all bad. The moody noir-ish photography by Juan Ruiz Anchia also makes use of some very limited spaces to create a genuinely murky atmosphere for these hoods to operate in, making "House of Games" the best looking film in Mamet´s oeuvre; Anchia delivered similarly excellent work on "Glengarry Glen Ross" (1992), written by Mamet, but directed by James Foley.

It´s rare that I complain about a film primarily based of its plot, but so much of the "pro" case for "House of Games" relies on the alleged cleverness of the scam. I not only failed to find it clever; I thought it was downright idiotic producing a series of "Oh come on!" moments for me. Then again, I feel exactly the same way about another allegedly "clever" film, Bryan Singer´s terminally silly "The Usual Suspects."
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Tan Lines

In the pantheon of gay movies, there is one subgenre-the coming out story-which has been put on screen more than any other. Young, old, accepting, intolerant, happily ever after, tragic endings, unrequited loves, bliss…there´s not a stone which hasn´t been turned over in hopes of a fresh take on the story. Foreign varieties of the coming out story feel that by adding a new locale or a slight twist on the tale, the audience will get something new out of it. Alas, nine times out of ten, it´s the same old story dressed in the same clothes. Maybe a different color or slightly shorter or tighter, but the same clothes.

Midget Hollows lives a quiet life in Australia, surfing with his friends and generally keeping out of trouble. When his best friends gay brother, Cass, returns home, the two begin a closeted affair in plain sight of everyone in town. With Midget´s newfound homosexuality and Cass´s penchant for finding trouble, can these two have an honest relationship? Or is nothing more than a summer fling?

It´s heartening when one person is the creative force behind any sort of filmed entertainment. There is one vision, one set of guiding principles. But there are also problems with a movie being a one man show, as in the case of "Tan Lines." First and foremost, as we´re told several times in the director´s commentary, Ed Aldridge (who also served as writer, producer and cinematographer, in addition to director) has no idea why he did certain things. There are scenes he shot and ended up using in the film-such as the shower sequence-he has no good justification for. That´s what is most maddening about "Tan Lines": with a system of checks and balances in place to make sure the movie stayed on point, it might have stood a chance of being remembered. As is, it´s a grown man´s fantasy.

A key ingredient in any film is a protagonist the audience can root for. Whether it be a hero railing against an injustice or a heroine standing up for herself, a character needs to emotionally "get" to the audience and make them care. Our young Mr. Hollows, the protagonist here, engenders no such compassion or loyalty. And that´s where the film´s most spectacular failing takes place.

It´s as if Aldridge followed Midget (played by Jack Baxter) around with a video camera, taking in everything the boy did for a period of time. "Tan Lines" is a series of scenes trying to tell a story, yet never sure what it really wants to do or be. Most of that is the director´s fault; he mentions several times how this person or that is a personal friend of his and participated in the film because of that friendship. It is terribly apparent since "Tan Lines" doesn´t have the polish to it a professional film would, either in look or in execution.

Baxter, as the lead, does a good enough job with what he´s given, especially when the story takes a bizarre left turn near the middle with performing cunnilingus on a female friend to teach her about composure. You feel sorry for the actor and the character for having to be in this particular situation. He´s trying to learn about his own homosexuality, yet he´s literally face to face with the desire of male heterosexuality. There could be an analysis of this scene…however, as with other aspects of the film, the only analysis Aldridge can offer up is a "Great Expectations" homage of sorts.

I keep going back to the commentary and using it to critique the film. Maybe that´s unfair, but it is the only understanding we have about what is on screen. Why are a group of old people running around, drunk and nearly naked at night? He doesn´t know; it looks cool, maybe? That´s the overriding theme in "Tan Lines": you don´t have to know why you do something. Just do it and take the consequences as they come. Cass and a teacher had an affair? All Cass has to do is run away and the teacher keeps his job. His parents come home and give him a guilt trip for being gone so long? That´s their only reaction? Midget and that teacher make out in a public shower and Cass beats him up? It just doesn´t make any sense.

This could have been a wildly successful film, exploring the bonds of friendship through the coming out process in a culture that is not American. Or even through the surfer culture. (Another of Aldridge´s claims is that he doesn´t smoke, but if a person does, he thinks they´re cool.) Hell, if he had stuck to what might have been the premise of the movie-showing the events in a documentary fashion, allowing the audience to judge-"Tan Lines" would have turned out more focused than the eventual end product. There´s a moment after Cass and Midget engage in unprotected anal sex when Midget thinks he sees sperm in the toilet. In a reality-based movie, the shot makes no sense. Yet the director says it´s something all gay men do after being penetrated for their first time. Had this been a pure fantasy, the sperm swimming around could have had a deeper meaning. But in the end, it all falls back on Aldridge and his inability to really understand any of his own characters, chief among them his protagonist.
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Serenity [Collector's Editon]

"Come a day there won't be room for naughty men like us to slip about at all."

With "Buffy the Vampire Slayer", Joss Whedon turned a failed movie into a successful television series and a multimedia franchise. "Buffy" spawned a hit spin-off in "Angel," along with countless action figures, games, and comic books. Whedon would go the opposite route by turning his space western series "Firefly" (which lasted less than a season on the air) into a feature film. Dubbing themselves "Browncoats," the fans of "Firefly" spoke out loud and clear that they wanted more and DVD sales of the show led to Universal greenlighting "Serenity." The results were not quite as successful as "Buffy." That´s not from a lack of trying and it´s certainly not, by any means, a comment on the film´s quality. "Firefly" and "Serenity" received a lot of positive reviews from critics, even if they didn´t draw in the ratings or box office. For me, "Serenity" was one of the most fun cinematic experiences I had in 2005, but the movie narrowly missed making back its $39 million production budget in worldwide grosses. However, DVD sales of "Serenity" were extremely strong and that led to a new 2-Disc Collector´s Edition.

It is 500 years in the future and humanity has migrated into deep space after exhausting the resources of their native Earth. The majority of the planets are under the rule of the Alliance while many of the worlds in the outer rims formed the Independents to fight against their authority. Short and sweet, they didn´t win. While this may be the future and people fly around in spaceships, this isn´t "Star Trek." There´s still poverty and crime, especially in the colonies out in the boondocks. Aboard the spaceship Serenity, Captain Malcolm Reynolds (Nathan Fillion), a veteran in the war for independence, ekes out a living through smuggling and robbery. His crew includes; Zoe (Gina Torres), Mal´s right-hand woman who has served with him since the war; Jayne (Adam Baldwin), a not-too-bright mercenary who loves grenades and big guns; Wash (Alan Tudyk), the ship´s pilot and Zoe´s husband; Kaylee (Jewel Staite), the ship´s engineer with a cute and bubbly personality; Simon Tam (Sean Maher), ship´s doctor and a fugitive from the Alliance along with his sister, River (Summer Glau), who was experimented on by the Alliance and left with a fractured mind. The full range of her abilities hasn´t been explored yet, but she is known to have telepathic powers and extraordinary fighting skills. In between the film and the TV show, two members of the ship left to pursue their own paths. Inara (Morena Baccarin), a beautiful Companion (courtesan) for the privileged, left to train and teach other Companions. Shepherd Book (Ron Glass), a preacher with a mysterious past, now tends to a different flock on the planet of Haven.

Attempting to make their way through the fringes of the galaxy, Mal and crew rob an Alliance payroll. Before they can finish loading the jackpot, the city is swarmed by Reavers, primal, cannibalistic savages that were once men. Against Simon´s wishes, Mal took River along to utilize her powers to sense danger beforehand. Incensed, Simon decides to take his sister and leave Serenity for good. His departure doesn´t last very long as the Alliance is dead set on retrieving River. They´ve dispatched one of their top agents, The Operative (Chiwetel Ejiofor), to go after Mal and anybody who´s ever had contact with him. Apparently, River has a deep, dark secret hidden somewhere in her mind that could undermine the Alliance´s control. The only clue that Mal has to go on to save everyone he cares about is the name, Miranda.

Being a continuation of a TV series, the main question for "Serenity" is, will people who´ve never watched the show be able to dive right in? I can´t say for sure. There´s a rich history to the universe that Whedon has created, but it´s not really necessary information. This is about the little guy standing up to the big guy. Whedon does a splendid job kicking off the movie with a bang while getting in important exposition. The film starts with a young River attending class. This is actually a memory as we cut to scientists experimenting on River. Simon breaks her out of the facility, but this is revealed to be a holographic recording being watched by the Operative. Whedon keeps the audience on their toes as he feeds them information without relying on pedestrian methods like flashbacks or intertitles. In one of the film´s best scenes, Whedon uses a single continuous shot that takes us through the ship and introduces us to each of the main protagonists. Right away, we get the gist of who they are and what they´re like. It all might be a bit disorienting for non-fans and they might not grasp some of the nuances of their relationships.

Unlike "Star Trek", the universe of "Serenity" isn´t a pristine and sterile place where Replicators can magically give you whatever you want. It´s dirty and grimy and nothing works when you want it to. There is a definite inspiration taken from "Star Wars" and, specifically, Han Solo and the Millennium Falcon. Like the Falcon, stuff on Serenity breaks all the time and pieces fall off frequently. Malcolm is certainly the kind of swashbuckling scoundrel that Solo was in the original, non-special edition film. I´m talking about the Solo that shot Greedo first before he could shoot him. In fact, Mal has no qualms about shooting an unprepared and unarmed Operative.

As Malcolm Reynolds, Nathan Fillion displays an easy-going charm and a quick wit that makes him a fantastic leading man. But, the hero is only as good as his villain and in the case of Malcolm Reynolds, he has an amazing villain. The Operative isn´t your standard baddie who twirls his moustache and makes overly dramatic gestures. He hardly ever raises his voice either. He´s cold, calculating, and foremost, a complete fanatic. He feels justified in murdering women and children. That this will actually bring about a better world. Yet, he has no delusions about the horror he inflicts and takes no pleasure in it. The Operative is one of the most multi-faceted antagonists I´ve ever seen in a movie and Chiwetel Ejiofor gives a wonderful performance. With films like "Serenity", "Four Brothers", and "Children of Men" under his belt, he´s definitely an actor to watch out for. I´d also like to make special mention of Jewel Staite who is absolutely adorable in this film and lights up the screen with her smile, even when she´s covered in engine grease. Staite perfectly embodies the sweet-natured Kaylee.
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I Pity the Fool [Season One]

Love it or hate it, "reality TV" is here to stay, even if the stars it creates are not. The generally exploitative nature of "reality television" has kept me away from the majority of it, although I do find myself tuning in whenever the occasional washed up D-list celebrities get a chance to make an ass of themselves on the aptly named boob tube. You couldn't pay me to sit through an episode of "Survivor," "Big Brother," or "The Real World," but at the same time I haven't missed a single season of "The Surreal Life," and I can't wait for this Sunday's episode of "Rock of Love." I think it's easier for me to stomach "reality TV" when it features actors and musicians who are behaving like fools rather than average people being their annoying selves. If I wanted to see a regular person stab somebody in the back over some petty reason, I'll just go to work. But to see former WWF star Chyna drunkenly humping her abusive ex-boyfriend in a spa while in full view of a former Brady kid and Mini-Me, that's entertainment!

When I received the first season of Mr.T's reality show "I Pity the Fool" in the mail, three things sprang to mind. One: Just how low has Mr.T sunk if he's willing to allow himself to be marketed as a "reality TV star?" Two: Whoever the genius is at Lionsgate that made the DVD case deserves a raise; they made Mr.T's mowhawk out of touchable fuzz! And three: When the hell did this show air and what channel was it on?

"I Pity the Fool" aired in the fall of 2006 on TV Land; yes, even TV Land is producing "reality" shows now. Thankfully, Mr. T's show doesn't dwell on negativity the way most "reality" shows do. His show is a bit more akin to the Dr. Phil show, except it stars somebody you would actually want to take advice from. Over the short six-episode season, Mr. T goes from a dysfunctional car dealership to a farm filled with out-of-control boys. While most people might think Mr. T shows up like a drill sergeant ready to dispel some tough love, nothing could be further from the truth. Mr. T works more like a motivational speaker and uses crazy words generally unseen on "reality television," words like "respect" and "accountability." Even though it doesn't have the screaming fistfights or tearful eliminations that most reality shows survive on, Mr.T's show has something none of those programs exhibit: Heart.
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Bourne Identity, The

Just recently, the third film in the Bourne Trilogy, "The Bourne Ultimatum" was released into theaters. The film quickly racked up a substantial amount of box office business and created a tidal wave of press for its star Matt Damon and the character of Jason Bourne. There were comparisons to James Bond, the franchise, the character and the men who have played the English super spy. A lot of thought was put into whether or not Damon has ´retired´ the CIA spy, or if Bourne will return for the stories that were not written by author Robert Ludlum or for all new adventures written specifically to allow the actor to keep his successful series of films alive. Before "The Bourne Ultimatum" found its way to cineplexes, "The Bourne Supremacy" was released onto HD-DVD and the first film in the series, "The Bourne Identity" has also found its way into the realm of high definition.

Starring Matt Damon as Jason Bourne, "The Bourne Identity" is about a CIA hitman who is suffering from a strong case of amnesia. He does not remember anything about himself, but has found a peaceful existence with some fishermen who saved him from drowning. Slowly, bits and pieces of his previous existence return to him and Bourne discovers he can speak a multitude of languages and also tie intricate knots, make coffee and read maps. Eventually, the trawling vessel lands in Zurich and Bourne sets off to look into a bank account he remembers and hopefully unlock more information on who he is and how he got into the water in which the fishermen pulled him from near death. In Zurich, Bourne opens a safe deposit box which contains money, various passports containing his picture and a firearm. Bourne assumes he is the man on the American passport.

Bourne´s trip to the bank was far from routine. Along the way, he easily disarmed and defeated armed police officers. He realized he was adept at hand to hand combat. Across the ocean, at Langley, CIA official Alexander Conklin (Chris Cooper) meets with CIA Deputy Director Ward Abbott (Brian Cox) and they discuss a botched assassination attempt against an African dictator. Conklin´s super secretive Operation Treadstone group was tasked with the job and Conklin is ordered to eliminate the agent that failed to kill the African dictator. Of course, this agent was the man who is trying to discover his identity in Zurich and Jason Bourne soon finds himself running away from the local authorities, government agents from the United States and others hot on the trail of the man with no memory of whom he is. After emptying his safe deposit box, Bourne hires a pretty young girl, Marie Kreutz (Franka Potente) to take him to Paris, France.

Along the way on his travels to France, Bourne and Marie encounter a number of people who recognize Jason. Bourne uncovers more clues, but some lead to confusing situations and alternate identities. Bourne also encounters one of the hitmen sent to kill him, but easily bests the CIA agent with his apparent expert hand to hand skills. By aiding Jason Bourne travel to Paris, Marie finds herself under the sights of those trying to capture or kill Bourne. Their time in Paris is quick, but informative. To protect Marie, Jason sends her away with his money. Bourne and a hired hitman, the Professor (Clive Owen) clash and Bourne interrogates the Professor for information. The meeting points Bourne to the direction of Conklin and a path that will bring about a return of many of the troubling memories that will help Jason Bourne discover his true identity.

"The Bourne Identity" helped make Matt Damon a star. The actor had not been in many films prior to the first Bourne entry and after receiving solid praise from the majority of critics for both his performance and the film, "The Bourne Identity" paved the way for the remaining films in the trilogy and a slew of other projects eagerly awaiting Matt Damon. The praise received by Damon and the filmmakers is well deserved, as "The Bourne Identity" is an intelligent spy thriller that throws away the conventions created by the "James Bond" films of the world and grounds the character and the action on realistic situations and an air of believability that is a warm welcome for the genre. Jason Bourne is a character that thinks things through and uses his fists and weapons when needed. His fighting style is clean and efficient and not showy. Jason Bourne and this film are as such – efficient and not showy.

You can only watch machine guns pop out of Aston Martin and BMW cars so many times before it becomes hokey and uneventful. Gadgets, one-liners and spectacular stunts become mundane and tedious when you´ve seen and heard them too many times. In "The Bourne Identity," you have none of this nonsense. The cars are beat up old Mini Coopers or Renaults. Bourne speaks only when necessary and does not relish his role as an assassin. He uses what is available to him at the time and has little to no technology to assist his investigation into his identity. Conklin and his team have all types of electronic gadgetry at their disposal in locating Bourne, but they are unable to surpass Bourne´s instincts and cunning ability to avoid trouble. The comparisons to James Bond are interesting, because the Jason Bourne movies have no similarities to the suave British double-o agent. "The Bourne Identity" is great because it is a departure from the formula created by those films.

I´ve enjoyed all three of the "Bourne" films and although I feel the story arc is complete and feel that the character is ready to enjoy his retirement, I´m not sure I´m ready for Matt Damon to not revive the CIA hitman in the future. When comparing "The Bourne Identity" to the other two films, this one is easily my favorite of the three and I feel it is the best written and most captivating adventure. It was the introduction to the character and because of its fresh approach, the worthy sequels didn´t break any new ground. Another reason why I prefer "Identity" to its two younger siblings is the directing by Doug Liman and camera work by director of photography Oliver Wood. Paul Greengrass took over the series after the first film and the documentary style shakey-cam didn´t feel as refined as what Liman and Wood created for this film. "The Bourne Identity" feels more intelligent and more polished than the follow-ups and I give Liman much of the credit for this.

Matt Damon is great as Jason Bourne. The role almost feels created for the actor. Co-star Chris Cooper is one of my favorite supporting actors and I enjoy him heavily in this film. Franka Potente and Julia Stiles are lovely ladies and their presence is felt in this film and they hold their own with Damon on-screen. Brian Cox and Clive Owen are also solid in their supporting roles and their presence in the film helped make "The Bourne Identity" the franchise keystone it became. This is a classic spy film that throws away convention and tried something else. It tried to be intelligent and rely on story and characters over flashy cars and spiffy gadgets. It succeeded and I have absolutely no problem recommending this film to anybody. Once the HD-DVD of "The Bourne Ultimatum" hits retail shelves, I´ll be enjoying a long evening of "The Bourne Trilogy," but for now the first and second films are available and well worth an investment of one´s time.
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