Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Saturday, May 29, 2010

Director's Report Card: David O. Russell (1999-2004)

3. Three Kings
If nothing else, “Three Kings” shows David O’Russell at his peak as a stylist. The film is shot in way that’s halfway between MTV and the art house. While the slow-motion explosions and scenes of gun play are action movie 101, the swirling skies and internal body parts aren’t exactly something you see all the time. On a purely visual level, it’s O’Russell’s most impressive film. It’s pure eye-candy if nothing else.

The movie is, in itself, Not Your Typical War Story. The First Gulf War is still an under-explored piece of history in our country, as far as cinema goes. The lack of action seen during the war seems to be a reoccurring concepts in these movies. The beginning of the movie is real promising. Our ragtag team of heroes, all perfectly normal dudes with shitty day jobs, head off not to save the day or rescue anybody, but for gold. It’s a selfish, immoral motivation and very refreshing. If the characters had remained like that throughout the entirety of the story, I’d have a more positive reaction.

But, no, within thirty or so minutes they wind up defending a group of captured Iraqi rebels and my interests went way down. The heroes decide to be all honorable and stuff and do the right thing. Soon, the story gets wrapped up in political stuff and big action parts. While the directorial zest keeps things spicy, the story is strictly hoo-hum from here on in.

Not to say the movie totally looses me at this point. The cast is a winner, if nothing else. George Clooney, still primarily known at this point as that handsome doctor on “ER,” really distinguish himself as an actor with parts like this. The character plays up his roguish, cynical aspect to good effect. Spike Jonze is highly amusing as the redneck private that would probably come off as annoying in a lesser movie. The same goes for Jamie Kennedy’s role. Mark Whalberg brings in a balanced, thoughtful performance and his subplot proves to be the juiciest part of the later second part of the flick. All of the torture is handled dynamically (and comes off rather eerie these days) and the philosophical conversation he has with his interrogator makes for intriguing material.

The movie has been sold as a dark comedy. The subplot involving the reporter lost in the desert is the primary source of humor, in addition to American pop culture stuff cropping up unexpectedly. (Seeing high-end luxury cars driving around the desert sure is unexpected, if nothing else.) So, “Three Kings” probably could’ve kick a whole lot more ass then it does, but it’s still a daring, exciting film. [Grade: B]

4. I Heart Huckabees
The concept of an existential comedy is one that is bound to cause a certain amount of “Huh?”-ing among the audiences, but I totally dug it. First off, the movie is hilarious. The story moves in a hundred different directions at its own bent pace but, within in the context of the film, it really works. Russell’s direction is on the same wavelength as he allows himself to go off into the deep end with many of the images presented within. There are so many hilarious scenarios here that it’s hard to narrow them down.

Russell has assembled an excellent cast, as the material requires a very talent assortment of actors if it is to work at all. Everyone gets their fair share of the hilarity, from wacky-everyman Jason Schwartzman to the continuously surprising Mark Whalberg.

Best of all, the movie does manage to actually get something out of it. There is truly some interesting existential philosophy presented. It’s not for everybody but those with a flavor for the lucidly loopy and the philosophic are bound to have a field day. [Grade: A-]

Yep, I skipped the short films. Because I'm lazy.

Apparently, Russell is a crazed, childish, control-freak of a director and you can find some real horror stories about that. But who cares, right? I don't have to put up with him. And, heck, he makes some pretty amusing movies.

Right now, Russell has two movies in post-production. "Nailed," the long in development Jessica-Biel-gets-a-nail-in-the-head political satire, is finally close to completion. More likely to come out first is "The Fighter," an Oscar-friendly sounding movie about Irish boxers in the 1980s with Mark Whalberg, Christian Bale, and Amy Adams. Out of those two projects, it's probably not hard to figure out which of those I'm more looking forward too. Either way, I'll see both of them, because of my crippling Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Director's Report Card: David O. Russell (1994-1996)

I know I haven't updated this blog in a long time. So, sorry. Finals and working on various projects have kept me busy. Here's the David O. Russell report card.

1. Spanking the Monkey
“Spanking the Monkey” starts off as a dry, low-key, character and dialogue driven comedy with occasional moments of laugh-out-loud hilarity. (Most of which involving dogs and masturbation.)

Jeremy Davis does really well and, with his distinctive voice and unique screen presence, immediately drawls the audience’s eye. Alberta Watson gives a very thoughtful performance and it’s obvious a lot of work went into the role. The two actors have a definite chemistry and a certain amount of tension between them that is pivotal to the film’s success. Benjamin Hendrickson and Carla Gallo have less to work with in their parts but both also give good supporting roles.

Towards the midsection of the story, things become more dramatic and the comedy values begins to all but disappear. As with almost all films that shift gears like that halfway through, the final half is decidedly less successful and entertaining then the first. The attempts to pull of a “serious indie film” look, even when aided by Russell’s nice visual work, are never fully convincing. Still, two wonderful lead performances hold your attention and keep you watching even through the depressing final act and heavily symbolic ending. [Grade: B]

2. Flirting with Disaster
I can’t even begin to imagine how David O. Russell’s mind works. As an amateur screenwriter, I have enough difficulty putting together a straight ahead story that flows properly. How Russell can create a story like this that takes so many different twist and turn, goes in several different directions and then goes back on those choices, and yet never falters in pacing or comical punch is just beyond me at the moment, I guess. That “Flirting with Disaster” works so well even with a story that is too wacky for the adjective “madcap” is a testament to the skill of the makers.

Maybe it works so well because, despite all the insanity that unfolds and all the varied and distinct characters brought in here, we have a likable two lead characters to relate too. Ben Stiller and Patricia Arquette play off each other very well and are totally believable as a married couple, even when the characters are at odds (which is during most of the movie.) The naming of their baby is also the main quest here (even if it doesn’t appear to be) and that steel objective keeps the story grounded as well.

The ensemble cast is really phenomenal with more great performances then I have room to point out. I will single out a young Josh Brolin, who plays a character much different then the type your use to seeing him in, and great supporting turns from instantly recognizable character actors Richard Jenkins and David Patrick Kelly.

If I haven’t brought to attention how funny this is, I will now. The movie is hilarious in spots and totally surprising. You never know what will happen next and that level of unpredictability makes this a hugely successful comedy. I’ll admit, despite being really funny in spots, its never as gut busting hilarious as it could be. There is also a minor gripe about Stiller’s character (whose selfishness is annoying at times) and a gag involving Indian wrestling which seems contrived. Still, I liked the characters and the out-of-control pitch of the story enough that these aren’t really issues. “Flirting with Disaster” is an extremely well-written, lovable, funny movie that you can watch over and over again and never looses its strengths. [Grade: A-]