Lucky Number Slevin (2006, Paul McGuigan)

Critics enjoy ruining movies on the day of release. They must–Roger Ebert gives away more endings then not (he gave away The Sixth Sense of all things). Worse, however, is when critics spoil the experience for the audience. I read a couple reviews of Lucky Number Slevin today and one said it’d have audiences picking it apart like they did Memento. Besides the incredibly odd image of anyone exerting brain power on Memento, this review put me on my guard during Slevin and it wasn’t fair of it to do so… There is a twist in Slevin, but you’re supposed to figure it out–heck, you’re supposed to figure it out really, really early. I figured it out late because I kept waiting for Patrick Duffy to take a shower. The twist isn’t what the movie’s about, it isn’t the filmmakers’ focus. In other words, last time I read that critic….

Lucky Number Slevin is Josh Hartnett and Paul McGuigan’s second film together, after Wicker Park. They’re an odd pair, or at least were when they got together–McGuigan makes tough violent films and Hartnett was, at that time, about to become Brett Ratner’s Superman. Slevin is easily McGuigan’s best film, just because he’s got so much to do–it’s not just witty banter between crooks or violent scenes or even an incredibly touching love story (the date in Slevin is the best movie date in years)–but it’s also a serious story about fathers and sons. I actually can’t wait to watch Slevin again, because without the fear of the Duffy, I can appreciate the film’s depth. It’s touching in small moments, small ways, ways maybe one cannot understand the first time through… maybe that critic was correct in that regard.

Still, for the first viewing, Slevin is constantly entertaining. There’s a slow start at the beginning, but once Hartnett appears, it starts. Nicely, it starts with Lucy Liu (as the love interest) popping in. She and Hartnett are great together in the film, but their relationship is so well written it’d be hard for them to be bad together. The other acting is all excellent, particularly Ben Kingsley. It’s his loosest role and he has a great time with it. Morgan Freeman is good, but he’s playing Morgan Freeman again. He’s been playing Morgan Freeman since Unforgiven or so. Stanley Tucci is in the film for a bit and he gets to say “fuck” again. He’s got one particularly great scene with it. Bruce Willis has a difficult role, since he’s supposed to be the enigma, but he manages to do a couple nice things with it. Hartnett’s back in his usual, excellent form (Mozart and the Whale seeming like a high school play).

I remember the back of my Sabrina (the remake) laserdisc. It said, approximately, everyone knows what’s going to happen, so the joy of Sabrina is watching it happen. I might not have predicted everything in Slevin (though the fiancée did), but I certainly did enjoy watching it unfold–McGuigan does a masterful job with it. He’s getting to be a singular talent.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Paul McGuigan; written by Jason Smilovic; director of photography, Peter Sova; edited by Andrew Hulme; music by J. Ralph; production designer, François Séguin; produced by Chris Roberts, Christopher Eberts, Kia Jam, Anthony Rhulen, Tyler Mitchell and Robert S. Kravis; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Josh Hartnett (Slevin Kelevra), Bruce Willis (Mr. Goodkat), Lucy Liu (Lindsey), Morgan Freeman (The Boss), Ben Kingsley (The Rabbi), Michael Rubenfeld (Yitzchok), Peter Outerbridge (Det. Dumbrowski), Stanley Tucci (Det. Brikowski), Kevin Chamberlin (Marty), Dorian Missick (Elvis), Mykelti Williamson (Sloe) and Scott Gibson (Max).


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Kafka (1991, Steven Soderbergh)

I wonder how the producers sold Jeremy Irons on the film. It was his first major role after his Oscar and it immediately followed, so he probably hadn’t won when he started filming Kafka… however, imagine if they’d advertised the film as “Academy Award Winner Jeremy Irons running through the empty streets of Prague.”

Kafka’s Soderbergh’s first film after Sex, Lies, and Videotape and it’s an exceptional disappointment. All Soderbergh has to do in Kafka is set-up German impressionist shots to match the script’s built-in references–there’s a doctor named Murnau, a town called Orloc (from Murnau’s Nosferatu) and I think I saw a Metropolis poster. Soderbergh is a filmmaker concerned with the human condition and it’s entirely absent from Kafka. Kafka is a gimmick within a gimmick… There’s a certain cuteness–wink-wink–of Kafka in a Kafkaesque adventure, but the adventure is so incredibly lame–and derivative–watching the film is a chore. I suppose it did lead to Dark City–writer Lem Dobbs took whole ideas from Kafka and put them in that one–but it’s a lot like The Element of Crime.

Kafka did remind me–in its aloof and blatant humanity–a lot of Soderbergh’s Traffic. There’s a visible disconnect in some of Soderbergh’s films, when it’s obvious the material isn’t engaging him, so he just busies himself with the camera. Kafka has a lot of such busying. It does have some nice performances–Jeroen Krabbé is excellent, Joel Grey is mildly amusing, it’s one of Armin Mueller-Stahl’s good performances. Jeremy Irons is fine too (he doesn’t have to do an accent). Still, I knew there was major trouble from the beginning… Theresa Russell is the female lead and she’s terrible from her first scene.

I wonder if Kafka would have gotten a better critical response if it had come out before Barton Fink instead of after it. Lem Dobbs’s script–with it’s goofy characters and particular humor–is an obvious Coen mimic. It’s just a useless film… and, while I realize it’s not supposed to be a historically accurate portrayal of Kafka’s life, apparently, in the film’s world, the First World War never happened. That historical omission is much more interesting than anything else going on and it really shouldn’t be.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed and edited by Steven Soderbergh; written by Lem Dobbs; director of photography, Walt Lloyd; music by Cliff Martinez; production designer, Gavin Bocquet; produced by Harry Benn and Stuart Cornfeld; released by Miramax Films.

Starring Jeremy Irons (Kafka), Theresa Russell (Gabriela), Joel Grey (Burgel), Ian Holm (Doctor Murnau), Jeroen Krabbé (Bizzlebek), Armin Mueller-Stahl (Grubach), Alec Guinness (The Chief Clerk), Brian Glover (Castle Henchman), Keith Allen (Assistant Ludwig), Simon McBurney (Assistant Oscar) and Robert Flemyng (The Keeper of the Files).


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Dead on the Money (1991, Mark Cullingham)

I’m reading the only online review of Dead on the Money (well, only other once I post this one, I suppose)–it was a Turner Original Picture, airing on TNT and it’s not on DVD, so I suppose it’s somewhat rare–and the reviewer complains the “atmosphere of humor makes it difficult to take the film all that seriously.” Unfortunately, the reviewer seems to have missed the point of Dead on the Money. I’m sure there’s a word for it, but I don’t know it, but what Dead on the Money does is spoof the type of movie called Dead on the Money. The source novella (Rachel Ingalls’ The End of Tragedy) seems–from my Googling–to have a similar philosophy, but Dead on the Money has a better title and the all important cast.

Amanda Pays was, at the time, one of those actresses who popped up on lots of TV shows–she was on “The Flash” and she was on “Max Headroom.” I can’t remember how she was on “The Flash,” but in Dead on the Money, she’s more charming than good. It’s not a particular problem, because she’s in on the joke. The film probably got some publicity because it also stars–as her romantic interest–her real-life husband, Corbin Bernsen. Bernsen is in on the joke too, but he’s not Cary Grant and he sort of needed to be… However, John Glover is perfect in the film, playing a goofy, mama’s boy with a gambling addiction. But it’s not a serious gambling addiction of course (there’s nothing serious in the film)–Glover’s character just sort of assumes that role. Kevin McCarthy plays Glover’s father and it’s McCarthy in his second career prime. He’s only in the film for about five minutes but he’s hilarious in every second of them.

The reason I saw Dead on the Money in the first place is Eleanor Parker. In her last role to date, she plays Glover’s mother. It’s probably the least showy main role in the film and Parker does a great job with it. There are a couple scenes with she and McCarthy alone and, free of the plot constraints, she just opens up, appreciating the goofiness. Parker also gets to laugh at the film’s absurdity at the end, along with Pays, in a nice scene (though it’s not one of Pays’ better moments in the film).

Dead on the Money is an oddly rewarding experience. It’s a somewhat small reward–I’m not sure the romantic thriller genre really needed to be sardonically analyzed in a romantic thriller–but it’s still worth it. For the scenes with Parker and McCarthy alone… and Glover really is a lot of fun.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Mark Cullingham; screenplay by Gavin Lambert, based on a novel by Rachel Ingalls; director of photography, Timothy Eaton; edited by Anita Brandt-Burgoyne; music by Michael Minard; production designer, Jan Pascale; produced by John Dolf and Victor Simpkins; released by Turner Pictures.

Starring Corbin Bernsen (Carter Matthews), Amanda Pays (Jennifer Ashford), Eleanor Parker (Catharine Blake), Kevin McCarthy (Waverly Blake) and John Glover (Russell Blake).


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THIS FILM IS ALSO DISCUSSED IN SUM UP | ELEANOR PARKER, PART 4: GUEST STAR.

Lady and the Tramp (1955, Clyde Geronimi, Wilfred Jackson and Hamilton Luske)

Lady and the Tramp was Disney’s first CinemaScope film. Amusingly, though an academy ratio version was produced at the same time, the modern home video unit created a pan and scan version for DVD, instead of just using that full frame version. Nice of them. We watched the CinemaScope version this time (the fiancée occasionally informs me we’re having Disney festivals). Though Disney’s finest visual achievement, Sleeping Beauty, was a few years later, Lady and the Tramp in CinemaScope is a breaking of the motion picture. The modern visual language of cinema grew from these films, owing everything to these early widescreen Disney pictures. Film–even with special effects–simply couldn’t do what Lady and the Tramp does… there’s no worry about focus in the frame, no worry camera movements… it’s incredibly free. Of course, as special effects and cameras have become able to duplicate Tramp’s achievements, no one has used them as well.

Unfortunately, the other inspiration from these Disney films is the damn set-piece. In Lady and the Tramp, it’s the songs. There’s an incredibly useless song in the middle of an incredibly useless scene (Lady in the pound), one only used to bring in the song. Without the scene, the film would move smoother… all it does is bring in new characters. These CinemaScope Disney films inspired George Lucas quite a bit and he one-ups Walt on these superfluous characters–Lucas made action figures out of them after all. That scene, along with the ending, foul up the otherwise pleasant experience. The ending, however, owes a lot more to old Hollywood–with the romantic leads taking backseat to the eccentric supporting casts.

Before that first, fiancée-induced Disney film festival in 2003, I never thought I’d see these films again (I saw them, of course, as a child, undoubtedly at the wrong aspect ratio). Today, after recently sitting through history get a big dis in grad school, I’m even more appreciative of acknowledging their influence than usual. I tend to just say Sleeping Beauty and let that film be it, but there’s something magical about Lady and the Tramp. It’s not supposed to be real life–a quality live action film had lost by the 1950s (it’s never recovered from the loss)–and Lady and the Tramp is better for that condition. It’s an utterly commercial venture, but it’s still filled with pleasing awe… Whether its creators were excited about making the film (I’m not sure when Walt Disney had fully drained the life from his employees), it certainly seems as though they were and it carries over to the viewer.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Clyde Geronimi, Wilfred Jackson and Hamilton Luske; screenplay by Erdman Penner, Joe Rinaldi, Ralph Wright and Don DaGradi, based on a story by Ward Greene; edited by Donald Halliday; music by Oliver Wallace; released by Walt Disney Pictures.

Starring Peggy Lee (Darling), Barbara Luddy (Lady), Larry Roberts (Tramp), Bill Thompson (Jock), Bill Baucom (Trusty), Stan Freberg (Beaver) and Verna Felton (Aunt Sarah).


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