Pivotal film, selling out your monkey

In Bruges (Martin McDonagh, 2008). The acclaimed Irish playwright follows up his Oscar-winning short film with a feature debut about a pair of hitmen laying low in a Belgian tourism mecca. The film is enjoyable, charged by a flinty wit and features a pair of winning lead performances by Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell. It’s also fairly inconsequential, structured with the shrewd storytelling insight of a seasoned dramatist but somewhat wanting in depth. All of the characters feel like pieces instead of completely realized creations. None of the relationships have resonance, causing problems as the twists of the plot require some investment in the interpersonal dynamics or certain lingering histories. It creates the strange sensation of a film that is simultaneously spirited and a little flat.

Redbelt (David Mamet, 2008). Mamet still has the capacity to surprise. There’s plenty about this film that bears his mark, but I wouldn’t have expected a conflicted martial arts instructor to be at the forefront of one of his films. Chiwetel Ejiofor plays that role, the proprietor of a struggling studio who finds his attempts at upward mobility undone by duplicitous forces. The familiar Mametian rhythms are in place, duly relayed by seasoned practitioners such as Ricky Jay and Joe Mantegna. Ejiofor, on the other hand, brings a more natural approach to his performance, and that resulting schism in styles gives the movie an extra energy. It’s a stern, serious-minded entertainment that cuts into some some deeper truths about the frailties of human ambition.

Front Page Woman (Michael Curtiz, 1935). Sometimes old movies just feel old, in structure, smarts and sensibility. The basic story pits dueling, flirting newspaper reporters against one another in an old-fashioned (in every meaning of the term) battle of the sexes. There’s an abundance of jousting and one-upsmanship in their respective pursuits of the juiciest details of a sensational murder case with plenty of ain’t-it-cute-when-dames-try-real-hard jovial condescension. Bette Davis was still in her twenties with a freshly engraved Oscar to her credit when this movie came out, and it’s entertaining to watch her squeeze her focused intelligence and the withering snap of her delivery into this wispy material, even if it sometimes seems the film gives her little more to do than dither. Michael Curtiz may have presided over the second-greatest film of all time, but he’s strictly a studio worker bee here. This is one of six movies he directed in 1935.

The Petrified Forest (Archie Mayo, 1936). Bette Davis again. What can I say? Sometimes Turner Classic Movies just programs this way. Taken from a Robert Sherwood stage play, Petrified Forest brings together a disheartened dustbowl dreamer, a despondent erudite drifter and a gritty, grizzled criminal (and a handful of supporting characters) together in a tense hostage situation and let the plot points bang around. Davis reunites with her Of Human Bondage costar Leslie Howard, the two playing off each other beautifully, Davis’s strident exactitude the perfect counter to Howard’s droll ease. Even so, they’re both somewhat overshadowed when Humphrey Bogart arrives as the gunman on the lam. He commands the screen in this early role, locking in with the sort of dark-eyed, steely ruffian performance that would long stand as the most dominant facet of his onscreen persona. It’s easy to conclude that there was a natural star onscreen there with years of evidence in between then and now, but the potency of his presence is undeniable.

Cassandra’s Dream (Woody Allen, 2008). If it’s murder in ol’ Londontown, then it must be latter-day Allen Konigsberg. Following the strained whimsy of Scoop, Allen pinballs back to a more serious take on the subject, and, like his best work of late, it feels like a lean, punchy novel. Unfortunately, it also feels like a novel that’s about fifty or seventy-five pages too long, petering out before end. Then, even though it’s too long, it has a conclusion that feels too abrupt. It probably doesn’t help that it dwells on set-up for about thirty minutes before getting to the meat of the plot. Still, there’s plenty in there that’s fascinating as Allen digs into the psychology of his characters. His exemplary efforts in this facet are supported and bolstered by tight, quietly intense performances by Colin Farrell, Ewan McGregor and Tom Wilkinson. It’s not top tier Woody Allen, but there’s intriguing material amidst the flaws.

(Posted simultaneously at “Jelly-Town!”)

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