Comments Off | Posted: February 6th, 2013 | Filed under: What I've Been Watching, Wild Enthusiasm | Tags: steven soderbergh
Steven Soderbergh is, in my mind, the perfect director, someone who wants to explore genre and the medium in such a way that he’s sometimes invisible (second unit on The Hunger Games? What?), sometimes front and center (weird indie films like Bubble and the gleefully subversive Magic Mike), but always there. He’s a man who enjoys the work and the final product alike. Reading interviews with him always makes me excited about creating things, and that’s rare nowadays. His sense of perspective and lack of ego when talking about his box-office failures (especially Haywire, which I loved but the audience thought was poison) is also inspiring. The fact that he’s opting to stop making films while he’s still at the top of his game and move on to new challenges only makes me admire (and maybe hate) him a bit more.
I’m going to miss going to see two or three of his movies every year, but with such a varied back catalogue (including an HBO series I completely forgot existed), I’ll be able to revisit and re-appraise his work for the rest of my life without ever getting bored. Thanks, Soderbergh.
Comments Off | Posted: September 13th, 2012 | Filed under: Meta, What I've Been Watching
…then click this link.
2 Comments | Posted: July 1st, 2012 | Filed under: What I've Been Watching | Tags: channing tatum, magic mike, soderbergh
For a short while there, it looked like I was going to be the only male in a fairly packed theater for the screen of Magic Mike that I attended. Magic Mike is Soderbergh’s inversion of the story we all know from films in which The Plucky Female Stripper (Or Dancer or Waitress) With A Heart Of Gold Finally Makes It, and I imagine the inverse of my situation was true for women who wanted to attend a screening of (God help them) Showgirls in the 90s. (For the record, some dudes showed up about 3 minutes before the film started, which is a shame; I probably could have made a few bucks from those 60-somethings in the very back.)
Magic Mike is about male stripping the way that Altman’s M*A*S*H is about a surgical unit. It’s a framework in which Soderbergh explores power and money and what some men do with it and what others want to do with it. Don’t get me wrong: the dancing sequences take up a healthy portion of the film’s running time, as well they should, but they’re very much secondary to the story, which is fine. You get the impression that stripping is very much secondary to the characters’ real life, a means to an end.
Speaking of working towards that end, there’s a scene where Mike is talking to a loan officer in a bank that is just blunt and cold and it’s so much of what I like Soderbergh for. If you were to ask me to pick one scene from the man’s filmography that showed “his” style, that moment would be a close second to the “conspiring to conspire” scene in Traffic.
One of those things that gets a bit lost in Soderbergh’s auteur “makes-the-movies-he-wants-fuck-the-system” reputation is the fact that it’s obvious how much he likes certain actors and wants to push them in the right direction. Channing Tatum has an easy charm, of course, but this is the first time I’ve seen him in a film where the director was confident enough in his abilities to just let a camera rest on him. I was in no way surprised to find out that he’ll be in Soderbergh’s upcoming drama The Side Effects starring Rooney Mara and Jude Law.
I’m about 80% sure that Matthew McConaughey was just told to be himself and they’d make the rest work around him.
Cody Horn is going to go places. Olivia Munn can’t act, really, but she’s very good at exactly what she’s doing here, and I can definitely see why someone would want to take many, many pictures of her.
The daylight scenes (and indeed any shots that don’t take place in the club) are shot in a slightly-sepia, low-contrast mode while the evening scenes are lurid as hell. I’m not always a fan of Soderbergh’s heavy-handed cinematographic storytelling — it’s the only big flaw in Haywire for me — but it works perfectly here.
Basically, what I’m saying is that you should go see Magic Mike. It’s a much better film than the trailer intimates. The fact that the movie uses the 1970s Warner Brothers studio intro at the very beginning tells anyone who appreciated how bravura movie companies were at the time that they’re definitely going to see something that straddles the line between commercial and “art” perfectly.
Comments Off | Posted: May 25th, 2012 | Filed under: What I've Been Watching | Tags: p.t. anderson, really crappy late-night writing, there will be blood
I’ve never been entirely satisfied by P.T. Anderson’s movies. Yes, I admired them from a technical standpoint — who couldn’t — but I was always left very cold by them. For instance, with Boogie Nights, I felt as if I were watching an especially masterful simulacrum of a Robert Altman movie I’d enjoy much more, a sort of outsized-phallus version of Short Cuts. That’s why I’d always stayed away from There Will Be Blood, despite its praise. That’s fine — sometimes people enjoy different things, and there are plenty of other movies to occupy my time with.
However, I saw the teaser for The Master and felt outright excitement. A Metafilter discussion* prompted by said teaser gave the the prompting I needed to go give There Will Be Blood a fair shot, and I’m very glad I did. It’s a movie that shows a director who has utter confidence in his material, stripping away the superfluous tics that always distracted me and letting an actor and a script tell that story, directly and clearly**.
I found myself thinking and reconsidering bits of the film since I’ve seen it, and I think a great deal of that enjoyment and enchantment comes from the fact I watched it in a relative vacuum, five years after everyone had talked it up so much. Frankly, it’s the way I prefer to watch/read/listen to things — free of the marketing*** and fannish push that can cause me to prejudge material****.
I’m now seriously considering giving Anderson another shot with a bit more perspective on his material. Maybe without someone sobbing and telling me how much Magnolia changed their lives, I’ll be able to buy into it a bit more.
* Right now, Benjamin Birdie is screaming at me through his monitor, telling me that he told me to see the movie a dozen dozen times. The problem is that sometimes clinical detachment from a thing is more of an impetus for me than breathless enthusiasm.
** That said, maybe Anderson’s doing Malick with The Master — after all, There Will be Blood feels very Days of Heaven, isn’t it?
*** Yes, I do know what I do for a living, thank you.
**** You should see me hiding from Prometheus‘s marketing push; it’s comical how quickly I will screech and close a link when I’m blindly fed something.
Comments Off | Posted: March 20th, 2012 | Filed under: What I've Been Watching | Tags: aziz ansari, comedy
I’ve seen Ansari live twice and in the last couple of years have been really impressed with how much nuance he manages to throw into his portrayal of goofy, swag-loving letch Tom Haverford on Parks and Recreation
. That means I thought spending $5 on a non-DRM HD download of his latest comedy special
was a good idea. You might too.
1 Comment | Posted: July 26th, 2011 | Filed under: What I've Been Watching
Since today was Stanley Kubrick’s birthday — he would have been 83 — I decided to watch Lolita for the first time since I was closer to Humbert’s age than Lolita’s. It was just as good as I remember, but there’s a few things that I appreciate more now that I have a few more brain cells to scrape together.
James Mason was a wonder, wasn’t he? Alternately pugnacious and charming, he really occupied his role perfectly. It’s remarkable how sympathetic I found myself, really, because he’s more than a bit of a bastard.
Sue Lyon. Golly, is that uncomfortable or what? Even with her having 2 years on the novel’s version of the character, she’s so very charming and sweet and real and boy I feel creepy just typing that.
Oswald Morris’s photography takes all the cinematic tropes of the time and uses all of its tricks to his advantage. I love how subversive this film feels in this aspect, something that reminds me very much of the much-more-modern Burn After Reading.
I genuinely forgot how funny the movie was, and not just in the uncomfortable, black manner. The scene with the cot builds to a comedic crescendo that rivals Some Like It Hot for slapstick comedy, even as it reinforced our protagonist’s predicament.
Every year I get closer to inevitable death, I appreciate Peter Sellers more. Can we retroactively give him all the Oscars? Please?
Let’s not ever discuss the Adrian Lyne version. Ever.
1 Comment | Posted: March 11th, 2011 | Filed under: 100 Words, What I've Been Watching | Tags: marty, paddy chayefsky
It’s startling how fresh the original version of Paddy Chayefsky’s Marty feels, even if it’s been over a half-century since it aired, likely because we live in an era when Hollywood vomits a stream of by-the-numbers “romantic comedies” featuring beautiful people with beautiful people problems. Rod Steiger’s performance as the title character, a lumbering guy in his late 30s who’s tired of familial and societal pressure to get married, is restrained and heartfelt at the same time. Avoiding the clichés of romance on the screen, Chayefsky’s choice to show love in its realest, rawest form is enthralling.
1 Comment | Posted: March 5th, 2011 | Filed under: 100 Words, What I've Been Watching | Tags: christian bale, rescue dawn, werner herzog
RESCUE DAWN (2006)
I don’t think I’ve ever felt a more intense sense of joy at the end of a movie before. Survival stories are nothing new, but Werner Herzog’s spare style, when combined with engaging performances (even from Steve Zahn) makes this well worth watching, even if you’ve already seen the documentary that recounts much of the same story. Cinephiles are likely already familiar with the German auteur’s willingness to pit cast and crew against nature (see Fitzcarraldo,) to get what he wants, but the game is notably upped by Christian Bale, a man who’s proven that he’ll work hard for his paychecks.
Comments Off | Posted: March 4th, 2011 | Filed under: 100 Words, What I've Been Watching | Tags: criterion collection, samuel fuller, shock corridor
SHOCK CORRIDOR (1963)
Written and directed by Sam Fuller based on a story idea he’d had kicking around since the 1940s (and had pitched to Fritz Lang,) this look at America’s mental health industry couched in a murder mystery is about as subtle as a sledgehammer to the chest, but I couldn’t help but love it. It uses its low budget to great effect with a cast of wooden b-listers (including James Best) inhabiting a spare but fully-realized world. Darren Aronofsky should probably send checks to Fuller’s estate for basically creating the template for his entire filmography decades before the fact.
5 Comments | Posted: July 10th, 2010 | Filed under: What I've Been Watching
It was a master class in comedy that was full of great performances and characters that you genuinely cared about, but it was on Starz, so of course nobody ever saw it and it faded away into the dark night. In fact, my parents are the only people I know who even know what Starz is
outside of a channel that provides content to Netflix Watch Instantly. I think they show third-run movies? Occasionally Paul Blart shows up?
(Yes, I know the whole story about how Starz executives took too long to renew the show and Adam Scott and several others went to go find new jobs because they have to work sometime, but let me just blame the whole fiasco on them being on Starz instead of HBO or even Showtime, home of A Show About David Duchovny’s Dick.)
1 Comment | Posted: May 24th, 2010 | Filed under: What I've Been Watching | Tags: elmore leonard, justified, timothy olyphant
This man can wear a damn hat.
If you’re not familiar with the show — and that’s perfectly normal as it’s on FX — Justified is about Federal Marshall Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant,) sent back to the town he grew up in by a law enforcement agency that is understandably embarrassed by his shooting of a criminal over brunch at a Miami hotel. Raylan finds his past life colliding with the man he’s become in the form of old flames, an embarrassing family history, and a clan of racist hillbillies who fancy themselves the mafia in their neck of the woods, and it’s been interesting to watch how an entire TV show has evolved out of a short story by Elmore Leonard.
Justified had a shaky beginning: a terrific pilot segued into into a more-episodic-than-expected setup with several installments from the first half of the season being pretty good TV that fell far short of the benchmarks set by the first episode. I won’t lie; I watched those episodes and enjoyed them well enough but it was mostly due to Olyphant’s exquisite manliness and charm overpowering some weak plots (the trip to LA was completely unneccessary and felt like it came from another series’ writer’s room entirely.) However, even in those weakest starting salvos, groundwork was laid for what I suspect is the series’ core theme. Raylan’s cowboy attitude and affectations run contrary to how his job should be done in the modern era; watching them bite him in the ass and seeing him try to make things right within the boundaries of the law is both entertaining and satisfying. It’s a classic redemption arc, acted well by Olyphant and his supporting cast (particularly Natalie Zea as Raylan’s ex wife and Walton Goggins’ tightly wound psychopath) and writing that has gelled nicely as the series progresses. Between this and Treme (which I can’t even start to talk about without becoming a foaming zealot,) I’m in a really good place with dramas on TV right now.
(As an aside: you’re going to be hard-pressed to find a better-looking TV show, particularly in HD. Naturalistic lighting, great composition, and depth of focus used at just the right moments all work spectacularly with the muted color palette)
6 Comments | Posted: May 7th, 2010 | Filed under: What I've Been Watching | Tags: iron man 2
Please note: there’s some very slight spoilers, mostly relating to overall structure.
Don Cheadle as Rhodey is a huge improvement over Terrence Howard’s oddly soft-spoken performance. Just enough bravado and charisma without taking the spotlight away from Robert Downey Jr, who I’m not even going to talk about because let’s face it, he’s doing the thing he does very well with a character that suits him. I wish there’d been more non-armored scenes with the two of them, honestly.
The first act of the movie is hits the ground running, is funny, and has a very steady control of its storytelling. It seems like the least-tampered with, most-thought out portion of the film, moving pieces into place for later effortlessly.
Sam Rockwell is hilarious and slightly sad at the same time as Stark wannabe that takes corporate warfare to the next level. He knows how to eat enough scenery that the audience loves it but he never gets in the way of anyone else.
Didn’t Love, Didn’t Hate:
The SHIELD stuff. I really don’t know how it’s going to play to the average moviegoer who probably doesn’t give as much of a damn about Marvel’s next fifty-three movies as people like myself do. Samuel Jackson’s fine and Scarlett Johannson is hunky dory, but I felt that a little bit goes a long way with the worldbuilding. That said, Black Widow’s fight sequence (yes, only one, spoiler) is terrific, even if it ends with her doing little more than cheerleading.
The second act and the third, which are pretty close to the first movie in thematic and structural composition, seemed pretty sloppy to me. There’s some oddly fatty bits here and there that could have been cut down to make room for more material related to the story. There’s also a plot-related bit involving Tony and the suit’s relationship that is resolved with some jumping-through-hoops that diminishes Stark’s genius by turning him into a tool that finishes someone else’s plans. (I am trying to be intentionally vague here. Come back and read this after the movie and we’ll talk.)
Like Downey and Cheadle, Mickey Rourke seemed to be having a nice enough time and there were quite a few moments where I enjoyed his off-the-wall, slightly bonkers…wait, he wasn’t acting, was he? Shame that he didn’t have material that forced him to flex a bit.
Just like the first film, the big climax takes place at night and while you can make out what’s going on most of the time, a lot of the action just seemed way too samey-samey to me. I understand the practical need for dimly lit action when it’s basically CGI Robot Men pummeling each other, but I wasn’t thrilled at all, really. There’s a few good bits and a very nice “fuck yeah!” moment, but most of it was jump cuts, cameras moving around madly, and close-ups of Downey and Cheadle talking into HUDs.
Pepper Potts is downright bitchy and whiny in this and basically useless in the last act. What starts as a character arc about someone taking on huge responsibilities and stepping out on her own fizzles out disappointingly.
All in all: several really great moments and good performances buoy up a lackluster, pretty-tired-already plot that needed a bit more connective tissue and a bit less thigh-stroking and nerdy talk.
1 Comment | Posted: March 19th, 2010 | Filed under: What I've Been Watching | Tags: 30 rock
See it in all its hi-def, supersized glory at Philadelphia Will Do.
1 Comment | Posted: March 13th, 2010 | Filed under: What I've Been Watching
Harry Brown, directed by Daniel Barber from a screenplay by Gary Young, stars elder British statesman Michael Caine as a pensioner who takes the death of his closest friend at the hands of local hooligans very personally. Emily Mortimer, in a somewhat-quiet role in which she still manages to exude no small amount of strength, plays the detective investigations his friend’s death and the subsequent murders of those who attacked him. With two actors of that caliber on opposite ends of a screenplay, it’s easy to ignore the frequent wallowing in stereotype the script happily engages in, particularly when it comes to The Youth of England. It’s through the two leads’ abilities and Barber”s visceral direction and methodical pacing (with no small help from Martin Ruhe’s camerawork) that Harry Brown becomes something engaging and smart. Particularly strong is the final act that lifts rest of the film’s mass up significantly by dint of having at least one actual surprise in it.
It’s a movie that’s easy to overpraise because when it works, it sings, but there’s still significant problems in how it enforces storytelling cliché and laziness on the part of movies that attempt social relevance, even if it is highly entertaining to watch Michael Caine wreak Old Testament havoc on his inferiors one more time.
5 Comments | Posted: February 4th, 2010 | Filed under: What I've Been Watching
Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead further affirms Sidney Lumet’s place in the pantheon of American directors. Remarkably easy to follow despite a non-linear script, the movie looks at the decision leading to and aftermath of the robbery of a small jeweler by the sons of the owners. The script’s very well constructed — Kelly Masterson imbues a remarkable amount of sympathy for two characters who engage in such a selfish act — but it’s Lumet’s confidence in his actors and trust in his audience where things really shine. I’ve never had a real use for Ethan Hawke or Marisa Tomei, but their portrayals of people who are simply overwhelmed by events in their lives provide a nice counterpoint to Philip Seymour Hoffman’s masterful take on upper-middle-class asshole and Albert Finney’s very effective performance as the clan’s patriarch. There’s no grand speeches, no morality tale hammered home, just a story about lives derailed and spiraling towards an inevitable end. Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead is on Watch Instantly, and you should.
Observe and Report is to Paul Blart: Mall Cop as Butch Cassiday And The Sundance Kid is to Young Guns 2. Jody Hill works some very black comic territory, using Seth Rogan’s finely-tuned performance as an unhinged rent-a-cop to remarkable ends. The movie isn’t a traditional comedy by any stretch — Aziz Ansari’s brief bits as a cart vendor harassed by Rogan provided some of the few actual laughs I had — but I was very impressed with how thoughtful and sad the movie managed to be even as it was tweaking expectations and leaving the audience wondering how much deeper down the rabbit hole it’d go.
The ending may be just a bit too pat, but Observe And Report is a very interesting take on the classic redemption comedy formula and it’s heartening how much control Hill obviously had over his production. One of the things I’ve most enjoyed about Hill’s recent strides in comedy is how he combines small-town ennui, Southern gothic tropes, and a disdain for the “American Dream” into biting satire that never goes for cheap “shocks” or and avoids gags that are just pumped-up versions of what The Daily Show‘s writing staff do on a nightly basis. It’s rare to see comedy that’s as smart as his that doesn’t genuflect before its own intelligence and edginess constantly. Like Lumet, it’s Hill’s lack of pandering and a deep trust in his audience that makes me appreciate his work even more.
3 Comments | Posted: January 31st, 2010 | Filed under: What I've Been Watching | Tags: district 9, gamer, the hurt locker
Gamer is a terrific piece of trash cinema. Neveldine/Taylor’s brilliantly stupid piss-take on Second Life, gaming, the American penal system, and mass media is, in nerd-soundbite-friendly terms, Sin City-era Frank Miller adapting William Gibson’s Neuromancer. Even as the movie played out a fairly inevitable story, I found myself thoroughly enjoying the choices it made along the way, particularly when it came to the bugfuck performance by Michael C. Hall as the big bad, who’s given some of the funniest material a villain has ever had to play with. It’s high octane, smart enough to get by with everything it does and represents the kinetic, fast-and-dirty possibilities of digital cinema at a much more realizable level than any big-budget blockbusters.
Another modestly budgeted film with a high level of polish, District 9 starts off as a documentary-style science fiction film and ends up feeling like a proof-of-concept for the eventual Robotech live-action adaptation. There’s a few very huge leaps the movie fails to make and they nagged at me throughout the second half. Why did the aliens choose to do nothing with the weapons technology they possessed for twenty years before the events of the film? Is there no United Nations? Why bother with the cinema verité approach of the bookending material if you’re just going to have tightly-edited running and gunning over the middle 75% of the film? I can see why many enjoyed the movie — the acting is fine, the script does some interesting things with some of the same themes that Avatar furiously masturbates over, and the special effects were top-flight — but I was left disappointed by the final product’s faux intelligence and inability to say anything new in either of the formats presented.
While District 9 and Gamer both throw more and more at the viewer to varying levels of success, The Hurt Locker keeps things minimal and manages to redefine the modern war movie. Kathryn Bigelow’s a director I’ve long admired (Near Dark is the only modern vampire movie I take seriously) and the way she approaches the stripped-down screenplay is admirable. She tells the story visually, with long passages of near-silence, clipped dialogue, and Barry Ackroyd’s casually elegant cinematography heightening the tension without ever being cheap. In an era of overblown emotionalism, the movie’s lack of speeches and cheap platitudes is refreshing, making the events of the last act even more stunning.
1 Comment | Posted: August 24th, 2009 | Filed under: What I've Been Watching | Tags: inglourious basterds
I want everyone who sees it to be as surprised as I was, so I’m just going to keep it brief: it ranks just below Jackie Brown as my favorite Quentin Tarantino movie, a great meditation on the power of cinema. With dialogue and performances that are honed to a fine polish buoying a plot that’s much greater than the marketing campaign indicates, Basterds is funny, smart, and willing to defy expectations left and right.
Comments Off | Posted: July 10th, 2009 | Filed under: What I've Been Watching | Tags: bruno, sacha baron cohen
Right off the bat: I’m glad there’s a comedian like Sacha Baron-Cohen out there right now. We need comedies like Borat and Brüno more than we need Dance Flick or Judd Apatow Ruminates On How Bad Off Middle-Class White People Have It When Things Don’t Go Their Way. Interviews with him have shown that he’s deeply devoted to crafting humor from seemingly-impossible places; Borat’s exposé of America’s racism and hypocrisy proves that.
That said, there’s something very offputting about some segments in his latest movie. It’s not the gay material, per se: the opening sequence featuring Brüno and his lover’s multiple sexual deviancies is one of the most bone-shatteringly funny moments I’ve seen recently, but there’s a whole scenes where the satirical edge disappears entirely, replaced with material like Brüno getting brutally whipped with a belt wielded by an industrially-enhanced blonde at a swinger’s party.
When it’s funny, it’s fantastic. The photo sessions casting sequence and the denouement at an MMA event are exactly why I respect Cohen: he’s exposing base insecurities in our culture as a whole. Brüno also manages to act as commentary on things like celebrity “news” and the military in a way that’s just plain funny. Unfortunately, for every moment where I was laughing out loud, there’s a companion like the too-long scene in which Brüno goes on a primarily black, local talk show and baits them with broad racist caricatures. On one hand, the crowd is behaving in the same way as the rednecks do when confronted with someone who’s aggresively baiting them, but on the other, a white guy mocking black folks through broad caricature doesn’t sit well with me. It seems to be a reprise of bullshit that honestly could stay in the collective closet for a while longer.
Brüno is a more ambitious and aggressive movie than Cohen’s previous work, and its shortcomings are that much more glaring. I can’t recommend it wholeheartedly but it does provide some troubling insight into the boundaries of comedy. In ten years, maybe I’ll have reached a point where I’m seeing something closer to a man driving a crowd into a frenzy instead of a white man using black people to score easy laughs.
(All of my misgivings aside, it’s not exaggeration to say that the penis dance sequence made me spit my drink out and howl. Fucking amazing.)
5 Comments | Posted: April 23rd, 2009 | Filed under: What I've Been Watching | Tags: david simon, generation kill
I just finished watching David Simon’s look at the Iraq War, based on Evan Wright’s account of his time with the Marine Corps’ First Reconnaissance Batallion, and declare it supra-good.Â Much like The Wire, Generation Kill is an unflinching look at a world that the most of its viewers would never experience, and it’s just as immersive with an admirable level of craft across the board.Â Simon had Wright’s accounts of the actual soldiers to use as a base, but the performances really bring them to life in a way that becomes almost documentarian when combined with the handheld camera work and high production values with carefully nuanced audio production that uses some of the same techniques from The Wire (overlapping background dialogue, no background score) to good effect.Â Just as interesting as the main series (seven one-hour-and-change episodes) are the interviews with the marines portrayed, including Rudy Reyes, who played himself in the miniseries.Â Amazon has the series for $26.99 for a limited time and I can easily think of six dozen worse ways to spend your money.
Comments Off | Posted: May 10th, 2008 | Filed under: Reviews, What I've Been Watching | Tags: david mamet, redbelt
I’m fairly sure that regular readers here know how I feel about David Mamet’s work. Even with all of his obvious quirks (the elliptical dialogue technique “borrowed” by Brian Michael Bendis,) and faults (the remarkable inability to create a female character that’s believable,) Mamet consistently does more to make the writer-portions of my brain sing than any other writer-slash-director working. I’ll champion movies like the underappreciated Spartan
as if I were their father and when his material disappoints me, such as in the loathsome and excruciating Edmond
, I take it as a personal affront.
In other words, it’s very, very weird for me to walk out of one of his films with something like mixed feelings for the work, but that’s exactly what happened this afternoon when I saw Redbelt.
The brief version of the plot: Chiwetel Ejiofor plays Mike Terry, an honor-bound, financially-strapped jujitsu trainer that finds himself involved in a typically Mametian plot. It begins with an accidentally-fired gun and a Hollywood star involved in a nightclub fight, passes through a flirtation with the film industry, works in getting screwed by completely unprincipled fight promoters, and ends with a well-handled fight for not only Terry’s honor, but that of the martial arts he holds so dear.
Everyone in this film – with the notable exception of Rebecca Pidgeon (whose sole purpose seems to be appearances in films made by her husband) does an impressive job with the material they’re handed. Mamet’s emblematic dialogue, particularly when he’s directing, is not easy on actors: repetitive and stripped to the point where the absence of nuance becomes its own trope, but the cast, including Emily Mortimer and Tim Allen (who I’m glad to see actually acting versus being a Disney Corporate Puppet) alongside mainstays like David Paymer and Ricky Jay, hold up their end of things with nary a grumble. The centerpiece, however, belongs to Chiwetel Ejiofor, who’s the sort of actor I love, able to convey emotion and thought without opening his mouth or making exaggerated facial expressions, it’s easy to see why Mamet picked him as Mike Terry.
So, what’s the problem? That’s the bugaboo – I can’t really go into it without spoiling the film’s ending and I loathe spoilers, spoiler-devoted websites, people who issue them, and the DC Comics character of the same name (albeit for an entirely different reason.) Suffice it to say that where Mamet normally goes for the unconventional and clever, the resolution to Terry’s travails is far too simple for the amount of buildup the viewer experiences, particularly after its revealed how deep the plot against him goes. For a good 90% of the film’s running time, I was very pleased with what was being unfolded in front of me. The unlikely, near-random turn of events in the dojo that occur very early in the picture and the amount of coincidence and good fortune that comes Terry’s way may have been scented with incredulity, but I accepted it as I accepted The Spanish Prisoner and House of Cards and their unlikely setups because the end result, the final knife-twist in those pictures, it brings everything together.
But this time, it…doesn’t, but it does. It provides the kind of finale that Mamet’s never done before, one that’s closer to The Karate Kid than Heist and even if it feels as if Mamet thinks he’s done the work, it’s strangely unsatisfying. A stretched metaphor would be if you took a first-class flight to Paris, got a luxurious limousine ride to your hotel, checked into an opulent room, and were then informed that the only food you’d be allowed to eat was McDonald’s. While it’s not quite the final-act disaster that movies like Sunshine have become known for, it’s still disappointing.
Even with all of that said, there’s an awful lot to like about the final product. Mamet shows signs of directorial growth in several scenes, opting for quiet over chatter in a few key moments, thereby letting his actors tell the story with their bodies and faces with unheard dialogue, and giving the audience a break from his rat-a-tat wordplay. Perhaps even more surprising is Emily Mortimer’s portrayal of an attorney who finds herself being taught by Terry – she comes mighty close to being the first female character in a Mamet film that I like, which can be nothing but a good sign as far as I’m concerned.