Friday, August 27, 2010

August 27, 2010 Movies: The Unexpected

This is a Good News/Bad News thing. I saw a couple of movies this week, one in a theatre, one via Netflix Streaming. My expectations were knocked sideways with each film.

First, the Bad News.

I really like Steve Carell (Wait, while I go to the Internet and check, once again, on the l's and the r's in his name.) Okay. Carell. I remember his earlier work on THE DAILY SHOW. And I remember how blown away I was with his performance in LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE. Who knew the guy had acting chops like that? And then there's THE OFFICE. I am now watching a lot of OFFICE reruns. The show itself is brilliant. Brilliant in a different way from Gervais' brilliant British version, but brilliant nonetheless. Brilliant in a decidedly American way. So the first time through these shows, it was the show--and the beautifully written and performed arc of the Jim/Pam relationship--that made the show work for me. Now, on my second time through, I'm recognizing how remarkably honest and funny Carell is in the show. Episode by episode he brings everything he's got to the table, and that's a lot. He is at once silly and ridiculous and pathetic and charming and...sad. Gervais does all this as well, it is true, but...Carell (and the OFFICE writers) need to be recognized for this wonderful character. Okay. All right. I love Steve Carell. I thought both he and Tina Fey were very good in DATE NIGHT, though I thought the writing let them down. Okay. All right. But the other day, in a theatre, I saw DINNER FOR SCHMUCKS.

Here's how I think the pitch meeting for DINNER FOR SCHMUCKS went down.

PITCHER: Are you ready? Guy wants a promotion. His boss says okay. But the guy has to bring an idiot to dinner so the boss and his cronies can make fun of the guy. DINNER FOR SCHMUCKS. Whatdya think?

PRODUCER: Are you sure this will...

PITCHER: Schmuck is Steve Carell.

PRODUCER: Make the movie!

And that's where the creativity stopped. The movie is a long exercise in badly considered and executed "comic" situations and hideously unfunny jokes. I am terrible at remembering specifics about movies, so I am unable to regurgitate the jokes for you here but, trust me, the writers are sophomoric and talent-free when it comes to getting to the heart of the comic matter. And the very talented (I think) and very witty Zach Galifianakis is wasted in a stooge role that is offensively underwritten. It takes a lifetime to get to the dinner, and when we do, we are treated to more of the same lame humor and patented "guy movie" cliches we sat through to get to dinner. My question: Did Carell and Paul Rudd and
Galifianakis actually read the script before committing to the movie? Or did they, like the producer, just sign on with the pitch? I'm guessing the latter. Because all of those actors are much, much, much better than the material in DINNER FOR SCHMUCKS.

And then there's TRANSSIBERIAN.

(No matter how many times I type that title, the spell check always goes into Panic Mode, but as far as I can tell, that's the way it's spelled.)

This is a thriller I don't think anybody saw. Made in 2008 by writer/director Brad Anderson (THE MACHINIST, NEXT STOP WONDERLAND), it's a story about an American couple (Woody Harrelson and Emily Mortimer--yeah, playing an American), who are taking the Transsiberian Express from Beijing to Moscow after doing some social work in China. Along the way, they encounter an "interesting" young couple who attracts them in varying ways, and the results are far from pleasant for Woody and Emily. The plot involves the Russian drug trade and the shady way in which the Russian police force goes about its business. Eduardo Noriega and Kate Mara play the mysterious strangers on the train, and Ben Kingsley plays a Russian detective. The Lithuanian shoot stands in for Siberia, and the film is beautifully rendered.

More than all this, though, is the fact that TRANSSIBERIAN is a terrific thriller, and terrific thrillers are hard to come by. Most of the time, the plot line in current thrillers is transparent almost from the first reel. This movie, like Polanski's THE GHOST WRITER, is a current thriller that involves the viewer carefully, and then, about halfway through the movie, just grabs the viewer and takes him on an unexpected ride full of twists and turns that lasts until the very last frame.

TRANSSIBERIAN had the misfortune of opening the same weekend as THE DARK KNIGHT, the biggest opening in film history, and thus accounts for its relative obscurity.

But it's still out there, available to see, and I recommend it without reservation.

Monday, August 23, 2010

August 24, 2010--Sister Annette, the Russians and the Mulligan Twins

I'm always hearing stories about how the nuns messed up the lives of so many of my Lapsed Catholic friends. (Yes, Catholics can be friends with Lapsed Catholics. All a Catholic has to do to maintain the friendship is to nod and laugh when the Lapsed Catholic tells him how much the religion messed the LC up. When the C laughs, then the LC thinks the C is an LC and everybody is happy. One thing the C should never, ever do is try to explain to the LC why he, the C, is still a C. That's just asking for trouble. Because all the C is doing, really, is triggering the GUILT the LC has been harboring since he turned LC. And once the GUILT is triggered, the friendship between the C and the LC is endangered, because dredging up that GUILT is just not the friendly thing to do. The C rarely intends to trigger the GUILT but...that's the way it is with GUILT. It kind of sideswipes you like a neglectful Nissan driver in a slippery parking lot.)

Anyway, I never had any real trouble with nuns. Well, one, maybe. Sister Annette. I'm not changing her name because there's no way she's still alive and if she is she deserves to be really, really old. She was my second grade teacher and, I swear to God, she had us thinking the Russians were out in the cloak room ready to pounce on us if we so much as sneezed during Arithmetic. Yeah. Russians. Russians were very big back in those days if you wanted to scare the crap out of kids. And Sister Annette knew what she was doing when it came to kid crap scaring. I remember back then that I was afraid of Protestants (that's just a level of paranoia I do not want to examine right now), but not nearly as afraid as I was of the Russians. Back then, our only option when it came to escaping the Russians was to "duck and cover." Or, in the case of those of us in the Sacred Heart School, to move single file down the stairs to the basement where the Russians, we understood, couldn't get to us. Sister Margaret Claire in the first grade and Sister Perpetua in the third grade never mentioned the Russians. Perhaps that's because they were older and Russians to them still lived under Tzars and hadn't procured the hydrogen bomb. But Annette--she knew Russians, and she knew that if she wanted something out of us, all she had to do was invoke the imminence of World War Three and we would comply. Another thing about Annette that bugged me was that, one time, she heard somebody talking in the boys' room. This was strictly forbidden. I have no idea how talking might have negatively affected urinating, but she seemed to believe it would and banned chatter from the lav. Anyway, she heard talking one day (I guess she was just outside the boys' room door, listening), and when we filed out of the lavatory, she lined us up against the blackboard and demanded to know who was the chatterbox. Nobody owned up. We all knew that whoever owned up was going to be fed to the Russians. Trouble was, I KNEW who was talking. It was one of the Mulligan twins. It didn't make any difference which one it was. They looked the same and acted the same and both had a habit of talking in the boys' room. And I knew it was one of them. And it showed on my face. And Annette was really, really good at honing in on a face that showed. So she looked me in the eyes, and asked me who was the talker. I opened my mouth. Nothing came out. The Mulligan twins were enormous, and all I could think of at that moment was either I tell on the twin that I can see and who can kill me, or I hope to God that Annette is lying about the Russians.

I was punished. No Russians. Just blackboard clapping or something, I forget. But I was held responsible for the bathroom gabfest, even though I never, ever said a word in there.

I think, though, that the Mulligan twin who did the talking gained a modicum of respect for me after that day.

I have no idea what happened to Sister Annette.

But I hope the Russians got her.