Sweet and Lowdown (1999, Woody Allen) Such a delightful movie, I sort of can’t believe I missed it in the theaters. I remember that both Sean Penn and Samantha Morton were up for Oscars but the Woodman hadn’t been so up to snuff on his recent pictures, that I think I’d avoided it during its release. But now with my renewed obsession for Morton (in the “could watch her read a phonebook for two hours” category) après Morvern Callar, I decided to go back to watch it. Wow. A sort of jazz afficianado’s reminiscience, Allen brackets the film with historians and himself waxing poetic on the merits and outrageous behaviors of Emmett Ray, the second best jazz guitarist in the ‘30s. A complete egomaniac with a paralyzing fear of Django Reinheart, the only other guitarist Emmett considered better than himself, Penn plays Emmett as a twitchy genius prone to irrational breakdowns but lyrical musicianship. Penn really is great, though I suppose its easy to forget this about him when he seems to drop of the face of the earth and insist upon being a director and whatnot. Unlike less confident actors dropped into an Allen period piece, he constructs a completely credible character out of Emmett, rather than relying on the cliché Allen-esque mannerisms for depth. Morton does not speak, as Emmett’s mute girlfriend Hattie and potentially his great love, but who needs her to, as her eyes can say it all? The soundtrack is a joy, as is par for the Allen obsessively and lovingly researched course, and tinkles along with just the right amount of familiarity (“All of Me”) and unusual gems (such as various Reinheart recordings). From scanning the musical credits, which conspicuously lack any performances by an actual Emmett Ray, the inkling dawned on me that the film is really about Allen’s thoughts on how an artist might be plagued by the thought that he always played in the shadows of a gypsy musician from Spain. Is the film an aging cinematic genius questioning his own contributions or just an excuse to spin a few good yarns?
Mediocre heist movies don’t usually get so pathetically bad as Confidence (2003, James Foley) so easily sinks to. Some intrinsic problems at the casting level alone: 1) diminuative granddad Dustin Hoffman in glasses on a string as scary independent mobster type? 2) Ed Burns as a confidence man smarter than the hair gel on his coiffed head? This movie wanted to be an Elmore Leonard/Steven Soderbergh ‘s Out of Sight but more Tarantino and a little bit of Dashiell Hammett femme fatale thrown in. Children, let’s not get our hopes up here, okay? It also had that annoying metacritical stance, ala John Travolta in Swordfish, as Hoffman says to Burns (twice no less, as the second is in flashback), “Sometimes too much style will kill ya.” Some other laughable moments for me included the post-synced absurdly loud unzip as Burns and the lovely but wasted here Rachel Weisz remove each other’s drawers and their backseat of the getaway convertable make out as the credits roll. I actually sort of felt sorry for the aging frat boys forced to sit next to me in the theater. I should have warned them that this is not the kind of movie I can take seriously and perhaps they’d not like their enjoyment tarnished by my inadvertent “gag me with a spoon” hand gestures and inappropriately timed cackles. But then again, maybe those kinds of guys need a little conscious raising.
Croupier (1998, Mike Hodges) is one of those movies with all the things you really need already in the mix — sexy man (Clive Owen: check), intriguing world to inhabit (croupiers, ie. Professional dealers of black jack, etc.: check) as well as various sexual pairings (with Alex Kingston of ER, Gina McKee from Mike Leigh movies: check and check). Also, it is probably the least annoying use of voice over I’ve heard in a long time. As viewers familiar with Brian Cox’s rendition of McKee in Adaptation know, voice over as an explication device in films is supremely frowned upon. However, Croupier has this noir-esque quality that comes across as entirely earnest, perhaps largely through the stellar portrayal of Jack by Owen, and thus the voice over feel entirely warranted for the movie’s mood. To give a brief gloss of the plot, if it’s not familiar from the stupendous amount of press it received on its release through The Shooting Gallery, a touring indie mini-festival in various cities, Owen plays Jack, a struggling novelist, who’s father calls from South Africa encouraging him to take a job as a croupier at a local casino. As fodder for the book and as a way to support his retired cop girlfriend, Jack returns to his old profession as a dealer divorced from emotion observing the world of the casino through dispassionate eyes. The movie’s distanced and ironic point of view reminded me very much of Alain Delon’s ‘60s detective movies like Le Samouraï, all mood and ennui and detachment. Where all the characters are too damn sexy for their own good, and while this may lead to complications, the protagonist can still walk away from it all, a cool man in control of his own destiny. It may be all mood, but it’s a really appealing mood.
What this girl wants on a lazy Sunday at the beginning of April, is a little Colin Firth, some sassy “girl power” and some cute fashions on said sassy girl. Lucky me, What a Girl Wants (2003, Dennie Gordon) is playing down the street. Amanda Bynes of various Nickelodeon programming and now a WB sitcom with Jennie Garth, plays the aforementioned girl, just a sweet bohemian downtown New Yorker, who’s mom, Libby (Kelly Preston) met a titled Englishman in Morocco, Henry (Firth) and fell in love. Except the powers-that-be in his stuffy politico family sent Libby packing and so she raised her daughter, Daphne on her own. At 17, Daph decides to take off for London to find her father and hopefully, herself in the process. This movie is really about the favorite Hollywood convention: the swinging hip American versus the stuffy, emotionally shut-off but rich nonetheless Brits. Everyone plays their clichés to the hilt, particularly Firth with his oddly Hugh Grant circa-Four Weddings and a Funeral fussy stuttering. Bynes comes across as likeable and natural, despite the moments of physical comedy having a wannabe Lucille Ball pratfall-ishness to them. The camera in this movie loves to see Bynes fall flat on her ass and then jump cut to her shiny brunette head popping back up, no worse for the wear. An attempt at comedy in editing, I suppose. Watching the movie set me to ruminating on Kelly Preston, as in, has this woman ever turned in a good performance? How does she stay in the movie industry, on her flaxen head and odd L.Ron-Hubbard-loving marriage to John Travolta alone? In the scenes between her and the otherwise passable other actors in the picture, she practically sucks the thespian right out of them. A quick search on her filmography, care of IMDB, reveals that perhaps her best cinematic moment was yelling at Tom Cruise to “never stop fucking me” in Jerry Maguire, because prior, its Addicted to Love, Jack Frost and Battlefield Earth as far as the eye can see.
Jeremy Davies does well with these socially awkward, and sexually timid yet still intriguing young men characters. I’d just recently seen his lovely and strange performance in David O. Russell’s Spanking the Monkey and was pleased to see him in CQ (2002, Roman Coppola) as well. Unfortunately, his pleasant presence and the over the top stylishness of this movie cannot save the film from its lack of a compelling core. There’s something about movies, which depict self-indulgent young artists questioning their own existences, that leads to annoying levels of self-aggrandizing in the film proper. Coppola falls into this trap in his directorial debut and never climbs out. Who cares about this guy’s existential despair over the hotness of Angela Lindvall and his artistic pretensions and his French girlfriend who just doesn’t understand? These movies always make me surmise that if I had a penis, I might, but I presume probably even then, I still wouldn’t. Also, someone should speak to Sophia Coppola and remind her that behind the camera, good, in front of the camera, like a stick figure from hell. She turns in the most consistently bad walk on performances in Hollywood. Her cousin, Jason Schwartzman, on the other hand, is completely adorable. I fear for his musical and “artistic” pretensions (see his recent release, Spun, a drug film directed by a music video director) but his blustering short man bravado charms me every time. In summary, Roman knows his way around a camera and gets the intriguing juxtapositions available to the director thoughtful about film history, but needs to get someone more adept at screenwriting on board next time.