Thursday, April 17, 2014

I Saw This!! Hodgepodge

I Saw This (double exclamation point) is our feature wherein Graig or David attempt to write about a bunch of movies they watched some time ago and meant to write about but just never got around to doing so.  Now they they have to strain to say anything meaningful lest they just not say anything at all.  And they can't do that, can they?

In this edition of "I Saw This!!" Graig covers:

The Heat (DVD)
Argo (DVD)
The Station Agent (Netflix)

Masterpiece Contemporary: Page Eight (Netflix)
21 Jump Street (Netflix)

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The Heat (2012, d. Paul Feig), not to be confused with Michael Mann's epic Heat (no "The"), from what I can recall is formula buddy-cop comedy in the 1980's vein, but with a gender twist.  Paul Feig reunites with Melissa McCarthy, whom he made into a superstar with his stellar Bridesmaids vehicle, and puts her here as the crazy cop partner to Sandra Bullock's straight-laced, uptight FBI agent.  McCarthy is heavily rough around the edges, a Dirty Harry-style cop who plays by her own rules and scares the crap out of everyone.  She wears a consistent set of ratty clothes that strains to be called a wardrobe and lives in a bachelor apartment where her fridge doubles as a weapons locker.  Bullock meanwhile is so up her own ass she's ostracized everyone around her in the Bureau, and she thinks that not caring who she steps on or alienates is the only way to succeed unaware that it's what's holding her back.

At this stage I don't even recall the plot of the film.  The characters, though, were strong and enjoyable.  Bullock is a likeable actress who routinely appears in terrible, treacly roles, so it's nice to see here here able to let loose, and next to the improv machine that is McCarthy she does manage to keep up, though at the same time it seems that McCarthy holds back in order for her to do so.  The Heat is a pleasing film, but unessential.  There are mentions of how it should be important, both being a comedy and a buddy-cop film that stars two female leads, and that it was successful it is important, but beyond the gender spin there's nothing that stands out here.  That said, were there to be a The Heat 2, I would be game for it.

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Ah, the Ben Affleck career revitalizer, the Oscar-winning film for which he was snubbed as best director with much ballyhoo.  The "based on a true story" film that equally, controversially omitted large swathes of truth from its true story.  The film that turned it's catch phrase against itself from "Argo fuck yourself" to "Argo, fuck yourself".

I watched Argo (2012, d. Ben Affleck) after all the awards, acclaim, and backlash had already subsided, and I went into it being firmly in its corner, but as the film progressed, it slowly eroded my good favour.  Argo isn't a terrible film, but it's a burdened one.  The weight of being an Oscar-winning film puts it under a much finer microscope, and it can't stand up to that kind of scrutiny.  Beyond the hoopla, it has some definite moments and great intensity at times, but it takes such liberties with an incredible true story that it turns it into yet another dull Hollywood film.

The cast is indeed uniformly excellent (although the non-Hispanic Affleck's vanity casting of himself as the lead is a bit of a sour note) and the film looks great, but when the story descends into its final act of bullshit, with the operation in jeopardy because of a ringing phone, and jeeps chasing down a plane on the runway, it's like all the already loosened threads just let go.  It's such a hack final act, one that betrays the true story for the hoariest fiction, it's kind of inexcusable.  That it was even considered for an Oscar, nevermind winning one, was a genuine shock.

As David points out in his review the film almost altogether excises Canada's role in The Canadian Caper, or at least criminally diminishes it.  Equally it omits some of the background of where Argo, the fake film within the film, came from.  There's a Kickstarted documentary about the story that became Argo (originally an adaptation of Roger Zelazny's Lord of Light) that looks very interesting, and probably a lot less frustrating than this major motion picture.

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I saw The Station Agent (2003, d. Thomas McCarthy) back when it was first released on DVD and loved it completely.  In the years since my only real takeaway was how awesome Peter Dinklage is (a fact that the world at large has come to know) but beyond that the finer details of the story or its characters had escaped me.  A re-watch was long overdue.

The film more than holds up a decade later.  McCarthy has an assured style and pace to the film, a light drama about three lost people.  Dinklage is Finn, an insular train enthusiast who works in a model train shop.  When the owner of the shop dies, he leaves Finn his small plot of land which happens to house an abandoned rail station.  Finn, with little to tie him down, moves in.  Out front is Joe (Bobby Carnavale) who commutes in from Jersey, keeping his ailing father's food truck running.  Outgoing and energetic, he's bored of the small town hicks he has to interact with, and with Finn he finds someone more interesting to (attempt to) pal around with.  The duo become a trio when Finn is almost run over (twice) by Olivia (Patricia Clarkson), a self-employed artist living at her summer cottage following the dissolution of her marriage after the death of their child.  There's a lot of baggage these people carry in their hesitant friendship with one another, and it constantly threatens to divide them.

The Station Agent is ultimately it is a film about making friends and being a friend, and how much it can mean for lonely people to have someone to relate to.  Finn, Joe and Olivia are all outsiders to the town, but at the same time it's not like the feel they belong anywhere else either.  There are other forces in play, like redneck townies, a young latchkey girl Cleo who follows Finn as he walks the tracks, and a teenaged and pregnant librarian girl who's sweet on Finn but obviously having a crisis of her own.  The cast is phenomenal, including an amazing array of supporting players like Michelle Williams, John Slatterly, Jo Lo Truglio and Richard Kind.  McCarthy came out of this as a definite find, and his follow-up, The Visitor is a bit more difficult to watch but equally rewarding (I still need to see Win Win...I'll add it to the Netflix queue).

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Speaking of Netflix, I would have never found this Masterpiece Contemporary feature, Page Eight (2011, d. David Hare) were it not for Netflix's bot suggestion (likely a result of watching Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy).  What a great little British spy film, a TV movie but with a stellar cast.  Bill Nighy is the lead, as a career MI5 agent late in the game.  He's been through everything, and his handler, played by Michael Gambon, who is also his best friend (who also married his ex-wife, the great Alice Krige) dies suddenly, leaving him a rather incendiary document that details illegal CIA operations and the British Prime Minister's complicit knowledge of them.

It's an intriguing modern spy story, where the system looks in on itself and finds its own morals, standards and practices lacking, and the lengths that those in power will go to both hold power and destroy their opposition, all in the name of democracy supposedly.  Beyond just the compelling story there's also an intriguing character drama here.  Nighy's still obviously affectionate towards his ex-wife, he's got a strained relationship with his successful artist daughter, and the cautious flirtation with his neighbour (Rachel Weisz) has him questioning whether or not she's all she appears to be.

Going rogue, to steer clear of any systemic corruption, Nighy cautiously navigates a world he once new well, but has changed wildly since he was at his peak (I love seeing Nighy at a computer, obviously he's been trained how to use one, but he hunts-and-pecks as he types) and leaves him unsupported and exposed.  Nighy still has contacts, however, which includes Ewen Bremner providing yet another ace cameo.

I would love to see more Johnny Worricker stories.  Modern day espionage starring a seasoned veteran, not playing action hero but instead exploring serious intrigue is sorely lacking.

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Looping back in on my comments about The Heat, 21 Jump Street (2011, d. Phil Lord and Chris Miller) is a buddy cop movie that doubles as a teen comedy and triples as a genre spoof and quadruples as a TV remake brought to the big screen.   Even with all that, it's almost the same film as The Heat in terms of tone and dynamic, though it's twisting of its source material and genre skewering elevate it somewhat.

Channing Tatum really comes out in this role as a likeable, vulnerable and charming meathead, while Jonah Hill sheds a lot of his more bracing and annoying character traits to equally provide an accessible and likeable character.  The plot pulls things along, but the film is smartly more an exploration of the characters and their on-again/off-again antagonistic relationship with one another.  Tatum was Hill's bully in high school, the popular jock taking pains to put down the nerd at any opportunity.  When they come face to face at the Police academy, they realize that the physical limitations of one and the ineptitude of the other could be to each other's advantage, and a friendship is born.  But when they're enrolled in the revitalized Jump Street program to suss out crime in high schools, their roles are reversed, with Hill playing the popular kid and Tatum hanging with the nerds.  Naturally they come to blows over this dynamic shift but equally have more sympathy for each other's past.

Directors Lord and Miller are personal favourites but their forte truly is in cartoons.  Clone High, Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs, and the Lego Movie have all allowed them to exercise their very specific sense of humour with rapid paced quips, site gags, and an unreal physicality.  This, their first live-action production, finds various "Lord and Miller" moments seeded throughout, but not nearly in the same volume as their gag-machine animated efforts.  Their decision to focus on characters is perhaps the wiser one, and they seem to favour retaining improvised moments rather than structured comedy, which is perhaps partly a result of Hill's more extensive creative involvement as producer and scriptwriters.  The problem is perhaps there's too much story and too much improvisation making the film seem overlong and overstaying its welcome.  It's a bit of an exhausting effort, even though it's truly enjoyable throughout.  A sequel was inevitable, yet not altogether unwelcome.  Hopefully with Lord and Miller's "Lego Movie" success they manage to have a even more of their comedic voice injected into the picture.

What I should note most resoundingly about both 21 Jump Street and The Heat is that I have no standout gag I was left with.  In both I enjoyed the characters tremendously but for comedy features, there should be quotable lines and set pieces that stand out, but nothing comes to mind.