Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Review: In the Loop

“In the Loop” is an exhilaratingly fast-talking movie. The only movies that really compare were made over seventy years ago and starred people like Cary Grant, Irene Dunne, and Katherine Hepburn. I’m talking dialog that’s not only fast, but also non-stop funny.

I’m not, mind you, whole-heartedly recommending “In the Loop” to all of you fans of “The Awful Truth” and “Bringing up Baby” though – there is a caveat. And I will just come out and say it: This 2009 British comedy is flat out foul-mouthed and raunchy. It’s funny foul-mouthed, but raunchy all the same.

I wanted to pepper this review with tastes of the dialog, not enough to spoil anything, but just enough to either make you giggle or gasp. I wanted to help you decide if it’s likely to be your cup of tea. But, dang it, the funniest lines are also the most outrageously and creatively colorful. I’ll just share this bit:

“…this wall story is playing badly. There's a cartoon of you in here as a walrus.”
“A walrus? I'm not fat, I don't even have a moustache. They've given me tusks.”
“Wall-rus. You get it? Wall-rus, wall-rus.”
“We called some builders. They didn't turn up when they said they would.”
“What did you expect? They're builders! Have you ever seen a film where the hero is a builder? No, no, because they never turn up in the nick of time. Bat-builder? Spider-builder? Huh? That's why you never see a superhero with a hod!”

That exchange communicates both the movie’s pleasures offered and challenges posed. It’s funny, clever stuff. It reminds me of Kevin Smith in its joy of pop culture. But it’s also very British. What’s a “hod?” (Okay, I admit to using the closed captions to even know what the word was.)

The movie focuses on departments of state in London and across the ocean in Washington, D.C. as characters and insults fly back and forth. Simon Foster, the “Wall-rus” of the exchange above is a British Secretary of State and it’s his slip of the tongue that gets his department in diplomatic hot water.

The United States is lining up allies for an invasion of an unnamed Middle-Eastern country and Foster’s over-the-radio comments that a war is “unforeseeable” sends the Prime Minister and his master spin-doctor Malcolm Tucker – the ripe source of most of the profanity – into damage-control overdrive.

What ensues is a manic, crazy, and yet perfectly controlled dark comedy, something like “Dr. Strangelove” meets television’s “The Office.” The tone reminded me of the latter. This of the former: “Twelve thousand troops. But that's not enough. That's the amount that are going to die. And at the end of a war you need some soldiers left, really, or else it looks like you've lost.”

At the heart of it all though – for me at least – is what gets ignored as Foster is forced to run about playing war planning games. His people in London have real issues and it’s his job to help solve them. A woman has a real smelly problem with her septic tank and another man is angry that a wall is about to collapse and crush his mother in her garden.

It’s always the “little” things that get neglected by a war effort.

“In the Loop” has not been rated by the MPAA. It’s a witty, fast-talking movie though that is filled with some very colorful and creative profanity. It will screen at the Grand Theatres on Thursday, Feb. 3 at 3:00 and 5:30 as part of the Cinema 100 series. Tickets are available at the door.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Review: Rope

A pointedly calm, too calm New York City street is seen from high above. A woman sweeps her front steps. Another pushes her baby along in a stroller. Finally, a police officer leads two naughty boys by the hand, presumably home to their parents.

Then the camera turns to face a window, curtains drawn, and we hear a man scream. Cut to a well-groomed young man being strangled by two well-groomed young men in an upscale apartment. The murder weapon is a piece of rope.

Thus begins Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rope,” the first of four collaborations between the “master of suspense” and actor James Stewart. Along with “Rear Window,” “Vertigo,” and “The Man Who Knew Too Much,” these late 40s and 50s movies form the richest vein in the director’s work. “Rope” is the most unfairly neglected.

The victim’s body is hidden in a chest used as a serving table for a party. The guests include the man’s fiancĂ©, best friend, father, and aunt. The guest of honor is the murderers’ old college mentor, James Stewart. The cat and mouse game will be to enjoy the thrill of avoiding detection – and seeing if their old master will catch on.

Much has been written about “Rope.” The opening scene immediately following the murder is filled with double entendre. Made in 1948, every line of dialog circles around the two attractive young men who share an apartment as if they just did the unspeakable “it” – and wishing they hadn’t had to keep the curtains drawn.

The movie ends with a blunt, urgent speech by Stewart. During college, he had shared twisted theories about how the intellectual elite are above the law and can justifiably commit murder. Unfortunately, his pupils failed to note his facetiousness. The bluntness is forgivable though. The atrocities of Hitler’s own misappropriation of Nietzsche’s Superman were topical in 1948.

Most discussion about the movie though is related to what connects the beginning and ending, a rather unusual filmmaking experiment for Hitchcock. This discussion has also led to a misconception.

Hitchcock wanted the movie to play like a play in real time and he accomplished this by using long, uninterrupted takes as the camera follows the characters throughout the three rooms of the apartment.

This posed a number of problems including putting pressure on the actors to get it right or have to redo as much as eight minutes of work, something that caused Stewart much frustration. It’s amazing that he worked with the director three more times.

Another challenge was the enormous Technicolor camera. Hitchcock had to orchestrate an elaborate ballet of cast and crew and movable furniture and walls. When a character breaks a champagne glass and bloodies his hand, a makeup person had to sneak in – avoiding the camera – and replace the glass in his hand while applying the blood.

The misconception is that it was shot entirely using ten minutes takes – the length of a roll of film – with the necessary cuts clumsily concealed by closing and opening on a character’s back. Actually, the shots range from roughly four to eight minutes and each transition – like a fade-out – signals a new movement in the action.

The most dramatic transition isn’t even disguised. It is a cut to Stewart’s face as he begins to catch on, signaling the game is truly on.

“Rope” has not been rated, but it is filled with the director’s sense of the macabre. It will screen at the Grand Theatres on Thursday, Jan. 27 at 3:00 and 5:30 as part of the Cinema 100 series. Tickets are available at the door.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Review: Joan Rivers: a Piece of Work

One thing I love about a well-made documentary is how it can totally wrap me up in a subject – or in this case a person – that never held my interest before. I remember going into “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” very hesitantly and suspiciously and coming out a huge admirer.

I was never a fan of Joan Rivers – or rather I never really paid much attention to her. And seeing publicity stills had me thinking, “Oh, a movie about another aging celebrity with plastic surgery gone very, very wrong.” It’s a testament to the highly engaging film “Joan Rivers: a Piece of Work” that I now find her a most fascinating celebrity.

My wife watched – and loved – the movie with me the other night as I prepared for this review and she made a comment that captured the movie as well as any statement could: “She acts like her career is just starting.”

At age 75 and after 40 years of constant work, Rivers still has that feel of a youngster searching for her first big break. She seems a woman who never has to stop proving herself. And maybe she is. She was a trailblazer in the field of foul-mouthed female comedians. She was way ahead of her time and this world of Viagra commercials on prime-time television is only now catching up to her.

She has spent most of her career though playing a man’s game. Lenny Bruce could talk dirty and get immortalized on screen by Dustin Hoffman. Richard Pryor could get away with almost anything. Rivers once got a bit racy and Jack Lemmon walked out of her show in a huff. When she had the nerve to try her own late-night show, her mentor Johnny Carson never spoke to her again.

What also struck me about Rivers is how much she is a walking testament to the value of age and experience. Two scenes in particular stood out:

Early in the movie, Rivers hangs out in her home office rifling through file cabinets filled with index cards containing a life’s worth of jokes. Then she starts flipping through binders and albums containing cocktail napkins and torn sheets of notebook paper with even more jokes quickly jotted down on the run, jokes still awaiting an index card.

The scene reminded me of the recent Rolling Stones documentary “Shine a Light” where Mick Jagger spends hours sifting through the band’s countless hits trying to assemble the perfect set list. Jagger and Rivers face an enviable problem, too much good material, too little time in a show.

The strongest moment has Rivers on stage in Wisconsin, working an aging casino crowd. She cracks a joke about Helen Keller and is heckled by an angry man who shouts, “That’s not funny. I have a deaf son.” Rivers’ handling of the moment shows the skill and mastery of stand-up craft that can only come from 40 years on the road.

Rivers herself summarizes her career nicely near the end of the film, as well as her amazing “keep on trucking” attitude. “You can’t get hit by lightning without standing in the rain.” And, as I now know, her life has been filled with lightning strikes, both electrifying and devastating. She’s spent a lot of time in the rain.

“Joan Rivers: a Piece of Work” is rated R for language. It will screen at the Grand Theatres on Thursday, Jan. 20 at 3:00 and 5:30 as part of the Cinema 100 series. Tickets are available at the door.