Saturday, September 19, 2015

Movie Reviews: Dirty Weekend, Kill The Irishman, Bad Teacher

Dirty Weekend
directed by Neil LaBute
OK judging by this film Matthew Broderick may need to do some running, cut back on the carbs and hit the weight room. But you could say that about a lot of people couldn't you. Father Time eventually catches up with us all.There are very few people in their fifties who look as they did when they were in their twenties. Perhaps I am just a little taken aback at watching an actor I long identified with youth or young adulthood move into AARP eligible status. Oh well. It happens to everyone if we're lucky enough I guess. Alice Eve continues to take quirky roles which downplay her physical attributes and show a gift for snark and comedy. Nevertheless I didn't like this film all that much. There is a much anticipated twist that while it doesn't come out of nowhere (it's all but shouted out in the first twenty minutes) was sufficiently odd enough to put me off the film. YMMV but this wasn't really the movie I was expecting. I kept hoping that the film wasn't going to go where I thought it was going to go but it did just that. If this film were a basketball player it could be said to have faked left and went left. This is a film which occasionally gives the impression both from casting and the cinematography that it was directed by Woody Allen. Of course as it turns out this movie was directed by Neil LaBute, who also directed such films as Your Friends and Neighbors and In the Company of Men. I didn't know Labute directed this film before I started watching it but as soon as you listen to the characters talk it becomes supremely obvious who created this film. LaBute has the ability to produce some incredibly emotionally harsh scenes, something which, at least in the two other movies mentioned above, caused some people to dismiss him as a misogynist and/or misanthrope. That trait is somewhat muted in this movie. Nevertheless Dirty Weekend could still come across as an unpleasant Seinfeld episode or a less restrained Woody Allen film. I did like the introductory 60s style colorful credits with the smooth jazz soundtrack.

American Les Moore (Broderick) and British woman Natalie Hamilton (Alice Eve) are sales executives for the Los Angeles branch of an (IIRC) unnamed business conglomerate. Les is the duo's senior member but it's not clear that Natalie actually reports to him, as deference doesn't really inform their relationship at all. The two workers are taking a business trip to Dallas which becomes unavoidably delayed in Albuquerque. Les is a whiny little nebbish who virtually defines the term passive aggressive. Nothing is ever his fault. Self-centered Les tends to see the worst in people. He also has a verbal style that makes you wonder why someone hasn't punched him in the mouth yet. After five minutes with Les, even Gandhi would be looking for some brass knuckles. Les insults people without even thinking about it. Buttoned up Natalie is marginally less irritating but has a superiority complex about American conversation styles in general and in particular about what she sees as Les' cold emotional style and moral hypocrisies. Once they're stranded, Les almost immediately tries to ditch Natalie so that he can go into the city alone. Natalie finds this suspicious both because it is suspicious and because she feels that they need to remain together at the airport to catch the next available flight and arrive in Dallas. Natalie doesn't feel capable of doing the sales presentation by herself even if showing up Les would be a highly beneficial competitive side benefit. So to Les' barely concealed annoyance, Natalie stays close to him. And Natalie notices things about Les. She may not say too much but there's not much she misses.
Neither co-worker knows the other very well but it rapidly becomes apparent that both of them, especially Les, have some secrets which they'd just as soon not share with the other person. And both people initially feel morally superior to the other for what appear to be different reasons. There is something to the old joke that two women can work together for one week and end up knowing each other's detailed personal, romantic and medical histories while two men can work together for one decade and be oblivious to details of each other's lives other than marital status or sports team affiliation. This movie plays with that a bit as Natalie surgically drills down to bring out Les's hidden fears and secrets. From a combination of revenge, self-defense and possible actual interest, Les tries to do the same with Natalie. As with many LaBute films Dirty Weekend feels very stage like. With only a few exceptions the film is very static. Broderick and Eve have almost all of the dialogue. The other characters only speak in order to help us learn something about Les or Natalie. There is often an artificial stilted nature to the verbiage. My issue was that I simply wasn't interested in Les or his problems. Dirty Weekend is not really a light humor sort of film though I suppose for LaBute it may be as close as he cares to come to such fare. I'm leaving aside the trailer as it reveals the film's primary twist. This film may have been more transgressive had it been made two decades ago though I still wouldn't have cared for it all that much. You may feel differently. If you're unfamiliar with LaBute's work I guess this could be a dip into the shallow end of the pool.

Kill The Irishman

directed by Jonathan Hensleigh
Although you would never know it from most Hollywood crime movie output, organized crime existed and thrived outside of cities like New York, Boston, Philadelphia or Chicago. The syndicate was nationwide. Everywhere you go there are people who like to gamble, consume illicit substances or buy goods with no sales receipts. And everywhere you go there are people who enjoy hurting people, are too lazy to work for a living or want to lend money at higher rates than the law allows. Kill The Irishman tells the tale of such people in the city of Cleveland during the fifties, sixties and seventies. In particular it tells the real life story of Irish American labor leader/mob leader Danny Greene (Ray Stevenson). Greene, as played by Stevenson, was something of a likable nut. He was a Irish history fanatic who drove a green car, dressed in green clothes, and painted the walls and steps of his union office green. For a mobster he was quite well read, often relaxing by perusing works by famous Irish poets and authors. Even more unusually Greene was a health and fitness enthusiast who eschewed alcohol, tobacco and meat. He regularly jogged and exercised. But of course one doesn't get a street rep in the Cleveland underworld merely by being a well read vegetarian who knows a lot about his ethnic background. Although Greene had a long standing disdain for Italians that probably went back to his experiences being bullied at high school, he nonetheless often worked with them in his loan sharking, extortion, labor racketeering and other criminal ventures. Greene makes a name as someone who is not to be trifled with. Greene gets to know Cleveland Mafioso John Nardi (Vincent D'Ononfrio), a frustrated middle manager who doesn't like the current Mafia hierarchy much more than Greene does. The unlikely duo become close though that doesn't prevent either of them from cracking friendly and sometimes not so friendly slurs about the other's background. When Nardi loses an internal power struggle for leadership of the Italian crime group both he and Greene are upset.
But when the Cleveland Mob tries to take over all of Nardi's and Greene's businesses the two friends resist violently, kicking off a mob war that will have far reaching and permanent repercussions for all sorts of different people. This should have been a better movie. The casting is pretty good, with the exception of Val Kilmer's wrong turn as a police captain who attended school with Greene all those years ago. You will recognize a great many character actors and big name actors who often show up in mob movies, including but not limited to Paul Sorvino, Christopher Walken, Mike Starr, Tony LoBianco, Steve Schirripa (Tony Soprano's hapless brother-in-law), Robert Davi, and Vinnie Jones. Linda Cardellini and Laura Ramsay are Greene's wife and girlfriend, who get to see a more tender side of him. Fionnula Flanagan is Greene's crusty old widow neighbor who initially dismisses him as a dumb thug but later gives him a religious token and urges him to remember their Irish ancestors. This movie wants to be Goodfellas so badly but it can't. And it can't because the budget, special effects and ultimately writing fail to support a more than decent cast. Because the Cleveland Mob war was fought with bombs as much as with bullets the low budget really detracts from the story. And although I loved his work in Tombstone, in this movie Val Kilmer is charisma free. His intrusive voiceover detracts from the film. I wish someone would remake this movie with about 4 or 5 times the budget and do it right. There were a few too many times this looked like a made for TV film. Stevenson did really good work here. He plays Greene with a real twinkle in his eye. He's a tough guy but is rarely depicted as a mean guy. Greene showers the neighborhood with food and gifts at Christmas and Thanksgiving. He is kindly and chivalrous to women. Greene goes on television after a failed attempt on his life to give his enemies his address and dare them to try again (this happened in real life). Stevenson's Greene is a real man's man. He enjoys loyalty unto death from his friends and love from his women (well one woman anyway). Fun fact: much if not all of this movie was shot in Detroit because present day Cleveland had changed too much from the sixties and seventies to be believable in a movie depicting that time. Walken's minimalist offbeat acting style is a delight to watch here although he could probably do roles like this in his sleep. This was an okay film but not necessarily one you should seek out unless you're a genre fanatic. Obviously there is violence but the camera glides over such scenes quickly. There is no close up lingering over bloodshed.

Bad Teacher
directed by Jake Kasdan
This movie was thoroughly predictable but in a good way. It was funny. It's a reverse Cinderella. Instead of a poor but honest girl being mistreated by maleficent female rivals and winning the heart of a prince the movie imagines a foul mouthed lazy golddigger middle school teacher Elizabeth Halsey (Cameron Diaz) whose first, last and only goal is to marry a man who earns more money than she can spend. If you're not a man who fits that criteria the only thing you can do for her is tell her which way that rich man went. And if you are a remotely attractive single woman then you just need to stay out of her way. Plain or ugly women can hang around her as long as they realize that it's Elizabeth's world. They're just living in it. Elizabeth can be very nasty to rivals and unconsciously patronizing to just about everyone else. Having failed to snare a NBA player for marriage or failing that child support (she's foiled by their assiduous practice of birth control) Elizabeth thinks she's finally hit the big time with upcoming nuptials to a rich heir. But in a theme that's repeated throughout the film women are a little quicker to see through Elizabeth than men are. Elizabeth's would be mother-in-law demonstrates to her son that Elizabeth cares nothing about him, only his money. Elizabeth doesn't even know her future husband's birthday. Well that ends that relationship. Elizabeth must go back to her day job as a middle school teacher. She had just recently ostentatiously quit the job. She's a horrible teacher. Saying she doesn't care about her students gives her too much credit. If she's not sleeping in class she's giving the students movies to watch instead of doing any teaching at all. Elizabeth is not a motivated or dedicated teacher. Another teacher, Amy Squirrel (Lucy Punch), who is quite motivated and dedicated, starts to become more and more annoyed by Elizabeth's open lack of professionalism and crass behavior. This dislike erupts into outright hostility when both women try to put the moves on the new substitute teacher, Scott (Justin Timberlake), who just happens to be from a very rich family. It doesn't help matters that Scott apparently likes top heavy women, which Amy definitely is and Elizabeth is definitely not.

So the film's balance concerns the romantic rivalry between the two teachers, Elizabeth's inappropriate teaching methods, a crush that a gym teacher (Jason Segel) has on Elizabeth and growth by Elizabeth and Amy, who discover that in some aspects they might be mirror images of each other. Neither woman is happy to learn this. You can see something ugly in Amy's personality pushing its way to the surface via Punch's nervous expressions and crazy eyes when she's sharing a scene with Diaz. Good stuff. There's a fair amount of slapstick comedy. I love that stuff. Don't look for deep musings about the meaning of life or thoughtful writing. This is pure low comedy. It doesn't try to be too much more than that. And it works. Punch is British but you wouldn't know it here because her American accent is pretty good. John Higgins is the harried school principal who just wants everyone to leave him alone. Diaz does a great job portraying Elizabeth's initial indifference to and even horror at the idea that other people can make demands on her time and her feelings. If you need to relax and laugh without needing to concentrate too much this is a good movie to watch.

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