Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Dumb Guys

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in April 2008)

David Ayer’s Street Kings is another LAPD saga, meaning that even though your protagonist is violent and unethical, with a flagrant disregard for what you might quaintly call “the law,” he might still be a better man than the corrupt sleazeballs around him. I say “a better man” because on the evidence of this film the LAPD remains pretty much a male enclave, not that I wish the film had tapped the cliché of the grimly attractive female sidekick. Keanu Reeves is the outrageous central figure, not giving a very rounded performance, but doing well enough at the Dirty Harry thing; he’s surrounded by a colourful but mostly indifferently used cast (including Forest Whitaker, already in heavy post-Oscar slumming, and Hugh Laurie playing Dr. House’s less eloquent cop brother). Ayer’s first film Harsh Times was also familiar stuff, but with a distinctive take on the pain and arrested development underlying sleazy male behaviour. Street Kings is much coarser, and doesn’t have much tonal variation: it’s one of those films where even modest reflection (and one might forget that the original Dirty Harry was quite piercing, but that was the 70’s for you) is squeezed out by brassy momentum. The screenplay (co-written by James Ellroy) is quite ingenious, but as you know, ingenuity is nowadays usually just one step removed from ridiculousness. The movie is definitely entertaining, and I know that counts for a lot.


Kind of like I wrote the other week about the Argentinean The Year my Parents went on Vacation, Nadine Labaki’s Caramel is a smooth but straightforward creation that earns significant extra points for anthropological interest. It’s a warm-hearted, colourful chronicle of the lives, loves, ups and downs of four women who work and hang out around a big-city hair salon, the difference being that the salon is in Beirut. If the film is anything to go by (and I wish it was a little more persuasive that it is anything to go by), the foreground of such lives doesn’t look so much different from parallel lives in the West – they dress stylishly, have affairs with married men, worry about getting old, and so on. One of the women appears to be a lesbian, but it’s not probed very much; although there’s much camaraderie between the four, they’re conspicuously less open with each other than they’d likely be in the West (it’s sort of like watching one of those cleaned up Sex and the City episodes, except the cleaner came back for a second pass).

But more intriguing is what we see in the background. There are small compromises, such as frequent power blackouts, baked into the way of life. It’s a place where you can get questioned by the military during a late night talk with your fiancée, and where an unwise reference to Allah might send you to jail; or where a woman can’t book a hotel room for herself and a companion without producing proof of marriage. This is all fascinating, but because the film is so sunnily contrived in obvious ways, you never know whether these elements are being accurately portrayed. In the end, it remains a chick flick, ending on a woman’s overflowing delight in her new stylishly short hairstyle. Never undervalue the power of small steps, it seems to be saying.

Smart People

Street Kings and Caramel, in their different ways, can be (and especially in the first case, should be) criticized for lack of ambition, but it feels like their makers probably brought home most of what they were aiming for. Smart People, directed by Noam Murro, doesn’t meet that test. Sold as a literate comedy, it has Dennis Quaid as a grouchy literature professor, and widower, in Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Mellon University, and Ellen Page as his precocious 17-year-old daughter. Bookish and socially awkward, the two of them live in a self-satisfied bubble, which gets sullied when Quaid’s lay about brother (Thomas Haden Church) moves in for a while. Meanwhile, the professor tries dating again, with a doctor/former student (Sarah Jessica Parker).

The key part of that brief synopsis is the bit about the rarified relationship between the Quaid and Page characters, but it only dawned on me eventually that this was the intention, by virtue of some strenuous labeling dialogue (for example, a drunken Page actually goes up to a random woman in a bar and asks her what it’s like being stupid). The point is that the characters don’t seem, feel or sound smart. Oh, Quaid uses lots of long words in his lectures (the scriptwriter obviously raided a whole shelf of textbooks) and Page wears the worst clothes of any character in any movie since Battlefield Earth, but they never give off an iota of real intellectual energy; most of what they say is grimly and heavy-handedly functional. It’s tough to write and play smart people, but to take some recent examples – The Squid And The Whale and The Savages never left any doubt that its characters were real intellectuals, although of course foible-ridden. The Savages is particularly impressive for not trying to get laughs based on pretentiousness.

Because the central concept of Smart People so clearly fails, the movie ends up like a glue-deprived craft project using tape and spit and anything in sight to hold things tenuously together. The relationships swing from one pole to the other, leaving out entire fields of connective tissue. It communicates its “smartness” through grotesque excesses that aren’t then followed through. Page makes a Christmas dinner from an obscure recipe that she “translated from ancient French” – (1) nothing else about her character suggests she’d take on such a project; (2) if she had, she sure would have mentioned it earlier than the halfway point in the meal; (3) again, if she had, she sure wouldn’t have made it look like school canteen leftovers.

Maybe that sounds like carping, but details matter. I didn’t like Juno as much as most people did, but it flourished in large part because of painstaking attention to detail and character. Page in Smart People is meant to be (presumably in a desperate grasp at idiosyncrasy) a young Republican – the concept goes no further than a superficial reference to Dick Cheney before being dropped for the film’s last hour. If Juno had been a Republican, it would have amounted to something. Anyway, if you watch the film merely as a series of meaningless scenes, it goes by OK.

AMC Watch

Here I’m inaugurating a new and hopefully short-lived feature: Yonge-Dundas AMC Watch. I’ve been going there a fair bit because it works well for where I live, and it’s pretty good technology- and comfort-wise, but I’m finding the audiences there unusually annoying (maybe something about the acoustics causes the chatter, the rustling etc. to carry), and for a new place it feels remarkably drab, with obvious design problems. And I’ve encountered washroom issues on two separate visits so far. Isn’t this meant to be a destination venue, a showcase at the new heart of our modern city? Make it great, AMC! Or else be singled out here again!

(December 2011 update - the AMC never really changed, but I got used to it)

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