Newbie Wednesdays – I Love You Phillip Morris

I Love You Phillip Morris (2009, dir. Glenn Ficara and John Requa)
Starring Jim Carrey, Ewan MacGregor, Leslie Mann

Audiences love a great scoundrel. Con men able to take on the persona of figures of power, then use that power to one up “The Man” have been archetypal figures. Most recently Steven Spielberg’s Catch Me If You Can proved again that audiences love a good scam. At last year’s Sundance Film Festival, audiences were shown I Love You Phillip Morris, a feature film based on the true story of a man who never met a swindle he didn’t like. Since then the feature has struggled to find distribution and has been thrown around the schedule by studios frightened of its content, finally with a July 30th release date it looks like the general public will finally get to see what is a surprisingly clever and funny picture.

Steven Russell (Carrey) was an easy going clean cut suburbanite with a beautiful wife and daughter and steady job. However, he was hiding his sexuality from his wife, sneaking off for trysts with men when he had the chance. This all changed with a car accident where he had an epiphany. He was honest with his wife and left Texas for Florida where he met a handsome Latin man and showered him with gifts. Steven also had another secret: he was a damn good conman. He resorts to purposefully injuring himself in department stores and using fake credit cards to finance his life. The authorities catch up to Steven and he is tossed in prison where he meets the titular Phillip Morris (MacGregor). Steven falls madly in love and makes it his mission to get both he and Phillip out of prison. What follows are a series of scams that are so outlandish its hard to believe this is all based on a true story, and that the real Steven Russell was actually able to do these things.

It’s very interesting that the screenwriters of the snarky and vicious Bad Santa, Ficara and Requa both penned and directed this incredibly funny and, in certain moments, tear-inducingly poignant film. There is definitely the self-aware and sarcastic tone of Bad Santa present, but the characters here feel much more fleshed out and sympathetic. The film never shies away from the sexuality of its leads but it also doesn’t make them spokesmen for the LGBT community. These are just two people in love who are living their lives. That’s not to say the more prudish elements in our society will be lured into the theater. The scene where we learn Russell is gay involves him in the middle of coitus with one of his late night trysts.

The picture suffers in the structure department, though. It appears that Ficara and Requa wanted to be as true to the chronology of events as possible, and real life just doesn’t translate into a traditional cinematic story arc. The film comes off as episodic and a series of acts: act one is Steven’s coming to terms with his sexuality, act two is Steven meeting Phillip, and so on. I have to say the film is better than I expect it would have been if its original director, Gus Van Sant, has stayed on. As much as I love Van Sant, I can’t see him creating a film as entertaining as this. While it does it entertain, Carrey refrains from being schitck-y and is more in line with his performance in Man in the Moon. It’s inevitable that the film is going to lack the publicity push it deserves and be dumped at the end of the summer in theaters, so if you have the chance to see it definitely go.


Wild Card Tuesdays – The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call: New Orleans

The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call: New Orleans (2009, dir. Werner Herzog)
Starring Nicolas Cage, Val Kilmer, Eva Mendes, Fairuza Balk, Xzibit, Jennifer Coolidge, Brad Dourif, Michael Shannon

At one point in this film, I swear Nicolas Cage was attempting to channel Tony Clifton, the obnoxious lounge singer persona adopted by Andy Kaufman on occasion. This unofficial sequel to the 1992 Bad Lieutenant film is such a bizarre piece of cinema that lives somewhere between classic film noir and surrealist Lynch land. And there really is no other actor who could bring the right level of insanity to this role other than Cage. Even when its impossible for the audience not to react with laughter, Cage is going to keep pushing the boundaries of what we will tolerate.

The film begins in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Terence McDonagh and his partner, Stevie Pruit find a prisoner in the jail with water up to his neck. Instead of rushing to help they place bets on how long it will take the man to drown. Eventually, McDonagh decides to jump in and help, however the water is to shallow and he injures his back. McDonagh is a scumbag. He has the officer running the evidence room sneaking a cocktail of drugs out for him, he stalks college aged kids leaving nightclubs to confiscate their drugs, he has a prostitute girlfriend he seems in no rush to help get out of the business, and he’s just an all around asshole. A crime scene is discovered where an entire family has been killed execution style. McDonagh begins to uncover that the father was dealing drugs on another man’s territory and attempts to solve the case using methods that pretty much violate every law on the books.

Director Herzog employs some awfully strange choices in making this film. McDonagh’s drug use causes him to have hallucinations that the audience gets to see. During surveillance on a suspect’s house he swears there are two iguanas on the table while the other officers simply give each other confused looks. Later, after a mobster is killed Cage tells the killer to shoot again because “his soul is still dancing”, reflected by a break dancer spinning in the middle of the room. There are other pieces of scenery that keep that wacked out feeling continuing through the film. Actors like Brad Dourif, Michael Shannon, and Fairuza Balk add that twisted atmosphere to every scene they are in.

McDonagh is constantly on the go. There isn’t a single scene where we see him in his home, ready to fall asleep for the night. Instead he is always wheeling and dealing, playing one party against the other in incredibly flimsy ways that you know are going to catch up to him sooner or later. He owes thousands to bookie Dourif and tries dealing drugs out of the evidence room to pay it off, while trying to avoid the suspicion of his superiors. There really isn’t a film comparable to the insanity of this one and if you are a film lover like me, whom finds a sick enjoyment in Nicolas Cage’s frantic nature then  you desperately need to pick this up.

My 40 Favorite Film Moments – Part 1

This month I will be looking at my favorite moments in movies. These are not necessarily the best ever in films, but they are my personal favorites. In no particular order, here we go:

1) Let Me Out (Young Frankenstein, 1974, dir. Mel Brooks)

Gene Wilder is at his best when he goes from calm to frantic in a split second. His red-faced blue blanket tirade from The Producers is a gorgeous moment. This one however goes up there as one of my all time faves. Wilder as the nephew of Victor Frankenstein shines. In this scene we see him go from calm, to manic, to desperate, and finally to confident in his macabre heritage.

2) Mike Yanagita (Fargo, 1996, dir. Joel and Ethan Coen)

Two actors here who deserve a lot more credit. Frances McDormand won the Oscar for her role of Marge Gunderson, but this scene also showcases the chops of Steve Park. Park is able to create a three dimensional character in a single scene of this film, its amazing what he does. Its hard not to imagine the life of Yanagita after watching this. A powerful example of what happens when good writing and acting are paired up.

3) Oh, Are They? (Rushmore, 1998, dir. Wes Anderson)

The film that really broke Anderson out and still one of his best. Max Fischer (Schwartzmann) turns a post opening night dinner into a farce when his love interest invites her male nurse friend along. Would be nice if Anderson tried to go back to his more comedic roots, not that his current work is bad.

4) Binary Sunset (Star Wars, 1977, dir. George Lucas)

It’s a short scene, but it says a lot. The dual suns reinforce the alien nature of this world, the lighting sets the perfect tone as Luke Skywalker stares out across the vast landscape of Tatooine, and the music gets across his desire to explore. Simple and perfect.

5) Come Play With Us, Danny (The Shining, 1980, dir. Stanley Kubrick)

A perfect horror movie scene. The music and cinematography are in perfect unison and there isn’t much more to say other than, experience the scene yourself.

DocuMondays – We Live in Public

We Live in Public (2009, dir. Ondi Timoner)
Featuring Josh Harris

Josh Harris is much smarter than you. He is also likely more insane than you, as well. This documentary by director Ondi Timoner (also behind the great docu DiG! about the Brian Jonestown Massacre and The Dandy Warhols) follows a near prophetic vision of the internet and privacy that was unleashed from the mind of the aforementioned Josh Harris. The ideas he would present, for himself an experiment born out of curiosity, would shape the concepts of social networking and cultivation of user information as a commodity. The way Facebook works now is indebted to the research of Harris, a man who is unknown by the very executives whom run companies that wouldn’t exist without him.

In 1980, Josh Harris was a low level researcher in New York City. He attended a conference where the idea of computers being networked globally was being discussed and from this he began to think of how this could completely change the way people run their lives. He founded Jupiter, a company focused on surveying to gathering information on how people would use the internet. From there he developed the concept of public chat rooms which he sold to Compuserve. He was the first to think of making the internet a replacement for television and started Pseudo TV, back when streaming video was a blocky nightmare. Investors liked the idea but by 1999 Harris had become bored and was behaving in a more increasingly erratic manner. His next venture was a piece of performance art/social experiment where around a hundred people signed up to live in a subterranean village Harris built.

Before they could join though, they had to undergo extensive psychological testing, not to ensure their stability in the community but to help feed periodic interrogations that would be held during their stay. Everyone slept in Japanese style pods which had both a television and a closed circuit camera. Every channel was simply another pod. The bathrooms, showers, dining room, entertainment venues, simply everywhere was wired with cameras. The psychological effect it had was at first detachment by the citizens of the village and then a air of insanity took over. The experiment was busted on Jan. 1, 2000 after rumors spread that it was a Heaven’s Gate type cult. At this point, Josh and his girlfriend at the time set up cameras all throughout their loft and launched a 24 hour stream of every facet of their life online. This experiment culminated in Harris physically assault said girlfriend on camera when she refused to have sex with him.

From there he fell victim to the dot-com boom of the early 2000s, left New York City and ended up buying an apple farm. He tried to reinsert his “brand” into the current online climate but was met with executives of social networking sites who had no idea who he was. Harris is shown as being incredibly detached from others. His mother was on her deathbed and, instead of physically visiting, he recorded his message to her and mailed the tape, which arrived too late. His most formative experiences seem to have been bonding with virtual families via the television of the 1960s and 70s. Gilligan’s Island was a highly influential element in his life and he seems to transpose both the character of Mrs. Howell and his own mother onto a bizarre personality he would some times take on called Luvvey.

Harris ideas about people willingly giving over their information and their privacy has come true in the form of the 24 hour tweet culture we’re experiencing. He mentions that Warhol was right about the fifteen minutes of fame, however, he add people want that fifteen minutes every day. The documentary is an excellent examination of how we got to a moment where identity and privacy are typically forfeit when it comes to online culture. Through Harris’ insane experiments we can see that it is not so much about the technology as it is about a distance our culture has taken on in relation to each other, long before the internet.

Director in Focus: Brian De Palma – Casualties of War

Casualties of War (1989)
Starring Michael J. Fox, Sean Penn, John C. Reilly, John Leguizamo, Don Harvey, Thuy Thu Le

Coppola made Apocalypse Now. Stone made Platoon. And De Palma made Casualties of War. At the end of the 1980s De Palma was secure in his place as a Hollywood film director. When he had been closing out the 1970s he was still immersed in Hitchcoclk style thrillers. A decade later he’s made a gangster epic (Scarface), a 1930s historical crime film (The Untouchables), and a Vietnam War flick. Despite the change in venue and content, there are the same cinematographic trademarks (deep focus and POV tracking shot). But how does this film shape up next to the other great Vietnam War flicks?

PFC Ericksson (Fox) is out on patrol with his unit when they are ambushed. He’s standing over a Viet Cong tunnel and falls half way in. As a Cong soldier inches closer, knife in teeth, Ericksson is saved in the nick of time by Meserve (Penn). Later, they both witness their commanding officer getting gunned down and Meserve takes over. He becomes obsessed with revenge and leads his group of five men to a village where they kidnap a  young girl with the intent to rape and savage her. Ericksson is frozen as he must decide whether to protect this innocent or honor the bonds of his military brotherhood.

Casualties is by no means a perfect film, but it is a surprisingly mature film for De Palma, where he seems to be balancing his camera flourishes with a thoughtful look at the nature of war. There are still some cringe inducing line deliveries and Penn’s Maserve is played a little too broad for my taste. I did like Meserve’s speech about hating the Army. Often in pop culture, the soldier who brutalizes for pleasure is made out to be a dedicated troop. It feels more realistic that such a sociopath would despise the lack of self-decision that comes with the military. Once Meserve is out of the eye of his superiors he adopts his own sense of law. Ericksson provides a balance as a soldier who appreciates the idea of duty and rank. When Ericksson goes to report what he has seen he goes through the proper channels of authority. Meserve tries to get revenge under the radar.

De Palma ends things in a way I didn’t expect. Moments before the credits rolled, I felt the film hinting at a possible dramatically violent finale, but then it ends in an ambiguous way. The message of the film is hammered way to bluntly, though. De Palma does an excellent job of telling this story in a clear, comprehensible way and he uses some interesting technical skills. At the end I felt a certain dissatisfaction with  product. It’s not as high an artistic achievement as Apocalypse Now and its doesn’t have the emotional weight of Platoon. It is a well made piece of cinema with some very enjoyable acting, but definitely doesn’t score as high as some of De Palma’s other films for me.

Next: The first big disaster, Bonfire of the Vanities.

Jolly Good Thursdays – Five Minutes of Heaven

Five Minutes of Heaven (2009, dir. Oliver Hirschbiegel)
Starring Liam Neeson, James Nesbitt

There is no collective event as traumatizing and as haunting in the United States as the conflict in Northern Island has affected those people. In 1975, Ireland was under siege by a civil war where neighbor killed neighbor. The IRA killed those who were Protestants and loyal to the British, while the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) would kill Catholics who were disloyal to the Empire. These murders were typically carried out by adolescent males, coerced into proving their loyality to their faction by terrorist cell leaders. In many ways, this is a parallel to the Islamic fundamentalist terrorism today; young men too dumb to know better end up dying or killing another. Over time, if they live, the glory fades and they are left with the emptiness of what they believed was a great act of glory.

Alistair Little was 16 when he killed James Griffin, 19. Alistair wanted to prove himself to Ulster and heard about a Protestant friend being hassled by Catholics. He and a group of boys steal a car, get ahold of a gun, and show up on James’ doorstep, shooting the young man dead. Witness to this crime is Joe Griffin, James’ 11 year old brother. Thirty years later, the BBC wants to put together a documentary that culminates in Alistair and Joe meeting. Alistair has served 12 years in prison for burglary and appears to have worked towards getting young men out of the situation he ended up in. Joe has agreed to meet but is both apprehensive and enraged at the prospect of finally confronting his brother’s killer. For the rest of his childhood, Joe was blamed for not doing something to save his brother by their mother, and now the grown man wants to unleash all of this pent up rage on Alistair.

Five Minutes plays out in a very unexpected way, primarily because it’s structured as a four-act play. Each act isn’t contained in a single set but is contained by a certain focus. The first act is the recreation of the murder in 1975, the second act is the build up to the documentary meeting between the two men, and so on. The acting weight is focused squarely on Neeson and Nesbitt and they are overqualified for the job. Nesbitt in particularly is able to see saw his character psychologically, increasing the intensity as the hour of he and Alistair’s meeting grows closer. A large piece of this are internal monologues, Joe simply looking in the mirror of his dressing room, pulling the knife he has brought to exact his revenge and mulling over if he should simply leave or go through with this.

Neeson is equally good but in a different direction. He plays Alistair with subtly, he’s a man who wants his victims to be able to confront him and knows they don’t care if he is sorry or not. As he tells one of the BBC crew, he wants them to step in and keep Joe from hurting himself. As we see later in the film, he is completely willing to let Joe unleash his anger on him. But he’s not just out to give victims their peace, Alistair also wants forgiveness. He’s closed himself up in an estate flat in Belfast, never married and has no children and spends his days either in non-violence support groups or stewing in his home. It is inevitable that these two men are going to meet, but the film lets us wondering under what circumstances will it be and under whose terms.

Newbie Wednesdays – Mystery Team

Mystery Team (2009, dir. Dan Eckman)
Starring Donald Glover, DC Pierson, Dominic Dierkes, Aubrey Plaza

I read through the Encyclopedia Brown books voraciously as a child. And out of the dozens published and the hundreds of mysteries contained in them, I think I only solved one without having to look at the answers in the back. The titular team of this newly released independent comedy were probably like me. They loved the possibility of solving the crime but when it came down to the actual investigation it was over their heads. Mystery Team is the first feature from YouTube comedy troupe Derrick Comedy. They were one of the first to upload videos to the now uber-popular website and because of their early adopter status they garnered an impressive fan based. So how does the transition from 5 minute web video to 90 minute feature film work out?

Once upon a time, Jason, Duncan, and Charlie were a beloved staple of their small town, solving harmless mysteries like “who ate the pie?” or “who stole Timmy’s lunch money?”. Now they are seniors in high school, on the precipice of adulthood, yet still behaving like scrappy tweens. They are suddenly hit with a case way out of their league when a young girl asks them to find out who killed her parents. Duncan, the brains of the outfit, immediately wants to turn this over to the police, but Jason, after becoming smitten with the girl’s older sister, demands that they take on the case. The result is a very high insanity journey into the suprisingly dark underbelly of their small town. It’s a mixture of grossout humor and eccentric characters, including a cameo by UCB alum Matt Walsh.

Donald Glover, who was a writer on 30 Rock before being cast in Community, has always been the standout in Derrick Comedy. He has an enthusiasm and charisma that make him incredibly likable. When I watch Glover acting I see the future of American comedy. He’s definitely a young actor with the potential to make it as big as someone like Eddie Murphy or Adam Sandler, with the hope that he remains true to his comedy roots rather then make a series of throwaway pictures (I’m looking at you Grown Ups). A recent Twitter trend popped up calling for Glover to be cast in the lead of the Spider-Man reboot. While I consider myself a traditionalist when it comes to the physical makeup of comic book characters on film, this is a casting move I am behind 100%. That’s how enjoyable it is to see Glover act, and he would make a hell of a Peter Parker.

The strength of the film is that it isn’t mean spirited towards its leading trio. It would be easy for a group of socially stunted teenagers to be cast in a mocking light, and while humor is found in their awkwardness, we’re meant to love them. And its impossible to resist liking these three guys, as they are living out the childhood fantasy of being a detective, finding clues, and being wrapped in a big mystery. The acting all around is spectacular. Bobby Moynihan, currently of SNL, appears as Jordy, a convenience store clerk who was an informant for the boys for years. Moynihan’s performance is phenomenal, getting across the pathetic nature of man who gave up on his dreams and is smothered by this small town, but playing it with over the top enthusiasm. It’s one of the best and most layered comedy performances I’ve seen in years. If you looking to see where film comedy is going in the next decade, this is it.