So, as I mentioned yesterday, I hadn't done a day of movies in a while. I guess since I only got to three (some of you are saying "only?" I'm sure) as opposed to a true marathon of at least four or five, it's not really a full day, but I must admit – I'm out of practice, and I didn't plan as meticulously as I usually do. Additionally, my formula for accurately calculating the end times of a film at the AMC 25 (i.e., add 10 minutes to the run time) seems to have been altered. Now you need to add a good 15-20 minutes if you want to come even close to accuracy. I guess I hadn't really been paying attention that even more commercials and trailers had been added. The end result was, after getting to two, I missed my desired third, and it was two long for me to wait around there for something else, so I left and (shudder!) paid a second admission somewhere else.
Oh, what did I see? In honor of Monday, I decided to only see movies with titles beginning with the letter "L." Why? Lunes, Lundi and Lunedi – that's "Monday" in Spanish, French and Italian. Duh! Actually, that's a big lie. I just happened to see three movies starting with L. But wouldn't that be cool to actually formulate a personal program that way? No. You're right. Moving on.
I started with Layer Cake. I already mentioned in my previous post the important Bond-related lessons I learned courtesy of Matthew Vaughn's drug gangster film, but I wanted to actually talk a bit more about the movie itself, as well as mention the other two features I sat through, Lords of Dogtown and The Longest Yard. Suffice it to say, Layer Cake was by far the highlight.
The "layer cake" is how Michael Gambon's character Eddie Temple describes the drug-based criminal organization hierarchy in which Daniel Craig's character finds himself. Craig plays a drug dealer with a very strong work ethic. He's not the supplier nor is he actually the guy selling on the street. He's the middleman, and he knows his place. He knows how to run his business, make his money, keep his employees and bosses happy, and never get in trouble.
Or so he thinks. Since this is a movie, his plans for early retirement obviously are going to go awry through no fault of his own, and what Vaughn and screenwriter J.J. Connolly (who adapted his own novel) give us is a taught crime thriller in the newish British noir tradition of Croupier and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (the latter of which Vaughn produced). The story features more twists and turns than one could actually count without taking copious notes, and in a way, that's both its greatest strength and weakness.
The film is exciting, the surprises surprising, but at a certain point, when one tries to outwit the audience that many times, there are really only a couple possible directions in which to head, and instead of leaving the theater saying, "What a great twist," an audience member – say, this one for example – might think he saw it coming. This doesn't really take away from the enjoyment of Layer Cake, however, which simply put is a lot of fun without being too much of any one thing. Stylistically, Vaughn's film looks a lot like Guy Ritchie's work in Lock, Stock. But Vaughn may be even more disciplined. His camera moves all over the place, edits are quick as expected these days thanks to the MTV influence, and scenes literally flow from one to another without any noticeable cut. Music is utilized well, and the visual elements of the film provide the tone for the entire picture rather than the other way around. But what Vaughn does well is know how to take a step back. (A lesson that Michael Bay.) When a scene needs time to play out, it gets it. When the camera shouldn't move, it doesn't. When you don't need to see something yet, you don't.
The film is obviously not perfect. As I mentioned, it suffers from predictability simply due to its attempt to outsmart the audience. There are also plot elements that may have been more defined in the novel (or not; I haven't read it) that seem like loose ends floating in the wind here. None are all that important, but they still contribute to my saying, "Uhm, what about …?" at the end.
Still, Vaughn deserves major kudos for creating an incredibly entertaining picture without letting his cinematic style get in the way. He benefits from a brilliant cast including Gambon, the great Colm Meaney, and most importantly, the brilliant Daniel Craig. Craig plays a character relatively unique among crime dramas: he's very intelligent, but he's not a total smart-ass, and he doesn't think he's invincible. In fact, as bright as Craig's character is, he knows he's in trouble, and he's not sure how to get out if it. To make matters worse (or better, in story-terms), he keeps making mistakes. Things don't always go right, and when he fucks-up, it's his fault, not that of some Deus ex Machina unlucky situation. Craig pulls off all the important subtleties and nuances of this role perfectly, without ever being too hyper or mellow. Like all good films that even attempt to utilize a noir label, Craig's character deals in shades of grey – he tries not to deal in extremes, and he's a good guy who maybe does some bad things, but we're definitely still going to root for him.
Lords of Dogtown
Maybe Catherine Hardwicke, the director of Lords of Dogtown -- the fictionalized film inspired by the great skating documentary Dogtown and Z-Boys -- should spend some time learning from Vaughn because someone needs to teach her how to direct. I know lots of people went crazy over her debut Thirteen a couple years ago, but people: it really wasn't that good. It had a terrible script that happened to somewhat frankly deal with "shocking" issues involving sex and drug use by 13-year-old girls. It also featured a pretty mature performance by Emile Hirsch, John Robinson, Victor Rasuk and Michael Angarano. I couldn't help but laugh every time Heath Ledger appeared on screen because of his channeling of Val Kilmer. It was almost as if Ledger created his role of the surf-shop owner, and the skaters' mentor, Skip by taking bits of Kilmer's performances in The Doors, Wonderland and The Salton Sea and just smushing them all together with the help of a weird pair of fake teeth and an accent the sounds like Burgess Meredith's Penguin as a SoCal surf dude. (Props also to Rebecca De Mornay who deserves credit just for allowing herself to look like hell!) I do have to agree with Karen Cinecultist in her plea to Hardwicke to stop inflicting the non-talent that is Nikki Reed on the world> Maybe she feels obligated since Reed was the one who "wrote" the screenplay for Thirteen. She wasn't very good in that film either.
If you haven't seen the documentary by original Z-Boy (and Lords of Dogtown screenwriter) Stacy Peralta, you'll probably enjoy this film more. If you have, you've already seen most of the story, told better and in more amazing fashion since you expect cool shots of the kids skating in a fictional movie that allows multiple takes and set-ups much more than you would from archival photographs and footage (basically home movies) that are in the original doc. If, like me, you saw the doc first, Lords of Dogtown remains interesting for about 45 minutes, and then you might just find yourself waiting for the damn thing to end.
This film had been in development for a while with a few different people scheduled to direct. One was David Fincher, who stayed on as a producer. What a different, and probably more interesting, movie this: visually she's got that bleached Southern California look down, but this could have been a fascinating story for Fincher to tell, unlike anything we've seen from him before. Ah, what might have been.
The Longest Yard
I saw the original version of The Longest Yard years ago, and I don't remember it much. But as is the case with most movies I see, I tend to remember my feelings and impressions of a film more than details of the film itself, and I'm perfectly secure in saying that Robert Aldrich's 1974 movie could wipe the field with Peter Segal's modern adaptation. This isn't particularly surprising as Aldrich was a talented director who was responsible for films like What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? and The Dirty Dozen while Segal has more in common with Hardwicke, i.e., being a crappy director. Segal is the man responsible for a slew of crappy comedies, including Adam Sandler's last two debacles, the amazingly dull Anger Management and the equally tedious 50 First Dates. (Yes, I know people love Tommy Boy, but it's really a piece of crap. Anything good and funny about that film is solely because of the late Chris Farley's manic comedic skills.)
I don't mean to be too harsh. This new The Longest Yard isn't horrible. It has some entertaining and funny moments, and the basic story of a former football player having to lead a football team of inmates against the semi-pro prison guads still works, the spin placed on this version by Segal and screenwriter Sheldon Turner turn everything to shit. The majority of the jokes hit with a resounding thud louder than any of the sound effects placed on the tackles during the film's football game. They're not imaginative or surprising, and therefore, simply not funny. (Oh look, they switched the guys steroids with estrogen and now the rest of the movie he'll be all emotional, and cry, and act like a stereotypical woman. Sure as hell didn't see that coming.)
Segal has no concept of pacing or story development, and the editing in this film is downright annoying, especially during the football sequences. As is required during any comedy film involving sports these days, random real sportswriters and ESPN's Chris Berman show up for cameos to react to the game, because in this version ESPN2 decides to broadcast. As usual, the banter provided these poor non-actors is horrible, and all of us would have been better off had it all landed on the cutting room floor.
What's wasted are some decent performances from all involved, including Sandler and Burt Reynolds, who played Sandler's role in the original but here becomes "Coach" Nate Scarborough, who doesn't really do much coaching until the very end. Nelly isn't bad either as a barefooted running back phenom, and even former Dallas Cowboy Michael Irvin holds his own. Poor Chris Rock has most of the bad one-liners (but also some of the good ones) so he suffers the most.
A remake of The Longest Yard wasn't the worst idea. The original film isn't such a hallowed masterpiece that the story shouldn't be touched, and it could have been interesting to use a story such as this to show a bit of how the times – both in professional sports and prison culture – are different in 2005 from 30 years ago. But that's too high an ideal for Segal and Sandler. They just want to make people laugh, which is OK too, but in order to do so, you've got to make something funny, and The Longest Yard isn't.