Baseball Toaster Western Homes
Monthly archives: July 2008


We Live Again
2008-07-31 09:40
by Mark T.R. Donohue

I had kind of an interesting TV week because I was out of town; rather than having my HD digital cable with On Demand and dual-tuner DVR functionality I had to just watch whatever was on. With commercials! I felt like donning an animal skin and whacking a blonde over the head with a club. The silver lining was that I ended up watching a lot of things I never would have otherwise. One night I couldn't sleep and flipping channels I landed on a rerun of the last UFC pay-per-view. For the most part I find mixed martial arts a bit grotesque, but the main event featured B.J. Penn, an athlete of obvious and undeniable talent and substantial charisma. What's more, Penn was matched up against Sean Sherk, a known steroid cheat fighting for the first time since his reinstatement. I'd like to think that I'm too civilized to fall prey to base bloodlust, but I was very pleased when Penn dispatched Sherk with a devastating knee to the face.

My Cousin Vinny I hadn't seen this movie in years, but we flipped past it on "AMC" and we were stuck because it might be my father's all-time favorite. He's an attorney, and he spent the whole movie gleefully ribbing my sister Meg, who's applying to law schools, about learning from Vinny. Can we all agree that Marisa Tomei totally deserved her Best Supporting Actress Oscar? The bias against actors and actresses in comedies needs to stop already. John Turturro should have won a statue for Big Lebowski, too.

Be Kind Rewind I hadn't watched a movie on a plane in some time. Normally I read for a bit and then fall asleep. Even though sleeping on planes inevitably causes screaming back pain for me, I can't help it. Something about the canned air and the low humming. But I stayed awake for all of Be Kind Rewind, which was exactly good enough to keep me awake for an hour and a half. The film doesn't work at all, but it has its moments. Jack Black seems to be playing very broadly while Mos Def and Danny Glover were working off an entirely different script. For a rule-breaking music video director, Michel Gondry is an utterly conventional writer and his script cuts the film's momentum off right where it's starting to really engage. The movie parodies are the whole point of the film, and yet they stop fairly early so Gondry can indulge in a very dreary Capra-esque morality fable. I'd see it, but I wouldn't expect very much.

Saw III The first thing I decided to watch when I arrived home, after a weekend consigned to "King of the Hill" and "Hogan's Heroes" reruns? A shamelessly gory B-movie I've already seen! I think that my interest in the Saw franchise, which has had its ups and downs, was renewed by The Dark Knight. That film's conception of the Joker seemed to draw upon the Jigsaw character, particularly the sequence where he pits the two ships' passengers against each other. The Saw movies thus far are the opposite of the Star Trek films. You've probably heard the old "even number" trope about the Trek pictures. Well, these movies are the opposite, thus far -- Saw and Saw III were very good, for what they were, and II and IV were pretty awful. Anyway the rapid-cut style of Darren Lynn Bousman kept me from really getting the full arc of Saw III the first time around and I'm glad I went back to it. The first thing you remember is the nasty traps, which are indeed deliciously unpleasant. Buried in Bousman's over-busy direction (this would have been much better if the original's James Wan was at the helm) is a very Shakespearean little story about parallel family relationships (the husband and wife, and Jigsaw and Amanda). The script by Wan and Leigh Whannell is better than the C-list acting (except of course for the great Tobin Bell) and the sound effects are commendably disgusting. There's a line between films like Saw III and Hostel; in one the violence serves a dramatic purpose, in the other the violence is there for its own sake.

A Knight's Tale This is another B-movie I like way beyond all proportion. In this case, though, the acting is actually really good -- Mark Addy, Heath Ledger, and the frequently nude Paul Bettany all deliver. The fact that the story is preposterous and the historical details more fudged than Robin Hood: Men in Tights (starring Saw's Cary Elwes, synergy!) doesn't really matter. It's a nicely edited picture that makes the initially jarring combination of quasi-medieval settings and roaring 70's rock chestnuts work. You feel it when the lances crunch into armor, and that's all the picture's really trying to do.

The Batman
2008-07-22 18:19
by Mark T.R. Donohue

So, did Dark Knight deliver on the hype? I think it did, if it narrowly missed greatness. Heath Ledger's Joker was marvelous, a new interpretation of the character that continued the trend of more realist superhero movies. Gotham City in Christopher Nolan's films looks completely unlike the unapologetically stagy Tim Burton vision. In the new movie in particular, you can clearly recognize the city of Chicago, with just a touch of CGI to maintain a certain level of fantasy. Nolan's Gotham looks like what was once a city somehow overgrown with menacing buildings and class-dividing bullet trains. It's like his characters, who are once normal people but have been forced by extreme events to assume larger-than-life identities.

Ultimately I think that Knight falls a little short of Batman Begins, if for purely external reasons. Ledger was clearly intended to become a lasting part of the franchise, with one of his lines even announcing so. Unfortunately he won't now be able to appear in any more films, and that makes the lack of a satisfying showdown between Batman and the Joker in The Dark Knight an error which can't now be amended in another sequel. There was nothing particularly objectionable about the film's vision of Harvey Dent or Aaron Eckhart's performance, but the very heart of the movie was clearly the duality of Batman and the Joker. The movie wrapped up on the wrong set of themes.

2008-07-08 14:21
by Mark T.R. Donohue

Well, I have seen so many movies since the last time I wrote... I think I'm just going to go ahead and get it out in one big burst. That will clear the decks for me to start thinking about my next piece, about "Weeds" Season Three (recently out on DVD and viewed by me for the first time) and Season Four (four episodes in on Showtime). See, now that I have it written here, I have to do it, right?

In no particular order:

Night at the Museum Not entirely sure why I decided to tape this, but I'm glad I did. It doesn't transcend the kids' movie genre at all and even for a fantasy the logical holes are colossal, but it won me over with a message you don't see too often in Hollywood movies. The hero solves the conflict by studying history!

The Negotiator Since its theatrical run, I've always kind of wanted to see this movie, but didn't get around to it for whatever reason. It was about as I expected, pretty standard cop action-drama stuff with a rote double-cross storyline and a nagging question at the end -- whether or not Sam Jackson's character was innocent of the original crime he was accused of, doesn't he still have to answer for holding a bunch of people hostage? That's still a crime, right? Weird. Anyway, the city of Chicago looks really good in this one.

United 93 Not at all difficult to watch, for me at the very least. Director/writer Paul Greengrass very clearly did a massive amount of homework. Not every passenger on the doomed flight gets a character moment, but it's resonant and laudatory how Greengrass manages to pay tribute to the lives of so many even while telling a complicated story. He also shows uncommon sensitivity to the characters of the terrorists. You can find yourself sympathizing with them, amazingly. I also like how Greengrass used many of the real air traffic controllers and military officers to play themselves. You can imagine watching the film what a challenging, therapeutic experience it must have been. You should really see this movie. For me it proved a reminder of hope and human goodness in the midst of incalculable evil.

Semi-Pro Pretty terrible. This movie tampers unnecessarily with the Will Ferrell sports-movie formula and the grungy feel does not suit the jokes at all. It's like trying to light a match in a vacuum. The major inspiration seemed to be the flawed classic Slap Shot, a movie with a very different sense of humor. Ferrell's comic characters are always too moronic to be believable, and grafting his Jackie Moon's stupid antics to what I think is supposed to be a more or less serious love story between Woody Harrelson and Maura Tierney makes neither work. Anchorman and Talladega Nights took place in candy-colored sitcom fantasy worlds; it was OK to laugh at all the idiocy because nothing was at stake. But Semi-Pro tries to go for realism, sort of, and the result is an out-and-out flop.

Atonement Not bad, but not at a Best Picture level. The movie takes an eternity to get going, and by the time the twist you know is coming arrives, you lose all feeling for where it's headed. Then it meanders for a little while and out of nowhere has a very badly handled surprise ending. The disingenuous structure sort of takes the spotlight from some very good performances from James McAvoy and Keira Knightley (both devastatingly sexy) and all three actresses who play the third major character at different ages. I think I might enjoy it a lot more if I saw it a second time, since the thing that really stuck with me was how badly the script bungled the ending.

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford I love westerns, and I have a bit of a man-crush on Brad Pitt (who doesn't), but I hadn't read enough about this movie to know it was a full-fledged art film. How can you tell? Well, it's almost three hours long, that ought to be a dead giveaway. I didn't get bored at any point, but I did keep wondering whether all of the padding was really necessary. It doesn't help the momentum of the main story that members of the gang involved in James' last heist keep dropping in and out of view for hours at a time. That said, the interplay between Casey Affleck as Ford (who's fantastic) and Pitt as James is charged and tense for the whole run and in contrast to some of the other films I've watched recently, the ending is just right both in terms of giving the audience all the information it still wants to know and nailing the film's overall theme down. Westerns are always made to comment on their own times and not those in which they're set, but Jesse James has kind of an unusual modern relevance for a cowboy picture. It's about the idea that fame and glory are something that can be passed on or even stolen, which to me makes me think about reality television and the modern cult of celebrity. Can't finish without mentioning "Deadwood"'s massively talented chameleon Garrett Dillahunt, who has a role different than any I've seen him in before and is so good it took me half the movie to realize it was he. No makeup or prosthetics -- just by slacking his face and draining the intelligence out of his eyes, he becomes an entirely different man. This guy will win an Oscar one day, given half a chance. Maybe if somebody cast him in something besides a western.