Netflix Notes – “Directed By…” Edition

After the last installment, with all those “28” titles, I toyed with actually reviewing the original 28 Days flick, but then I thought better of it. Sandra Bullock has always bothered me. Not in the same way that one second of Dane Cook instantly injects me with the Rage Virus but there is something about Sandy that just rubs me the wrong way. Hey, we all have those actors that drive us nuts. Ask Joe about Forest Whitaker some time.

If there is a consistent theme to the films listed below, it has to be ‘Directors’. I chose each of these films primarily by their directors. I’ll explain further as I work through each one.

On with the show (and as always – Please comment below).

1.   The Kingdom

[movie 2.5]
The best thing about this film is the Opening Titles. I don’t mean that as a killer knock – after all the film is a capable, if predictable, action-thriller. Unfortunately, it doesn’t cover the higher ground it aspires too and telegraphs too much of its action and suspense leaving me a bit cold. It’s almost a shame director Peter Berg didn’t shift that cool credit sequence to the end of the flick. As we run through an animated timeline that paints a compelling and easily-understood rationale for why we’re in the Middle East (communicating in 3 minutes what Syriana is still trying to convey), the audience is given all the information they need to understand the rationale behind the various factions that exist in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Unfortunately, the rest of the movie plays out like CSI: Dubai. After a catastrophic attack in the effective opening scene, Jamie Foxx assembles a crack-team of experts (including Jennifer Garner, Chris Cooper and a wise-ass Jason Bateman) to head to Saudi Arabia to investigate the opening attack. What follows is the predictable fish-out-of-water stuff, with Foxx’s team butting heads with local law enforcement and customs as they struggle to ferret out the bad guys. The film looks great and it’s a decent waste of 2 hours but those opening titles really set the stage for something more ambitious which unfortunately, never builds.

2.   Kill Bill – Vol. 2

[movie 5.0]
I remember the original Kill Bill was one of the first films I saw following Colin’s birth in 2003. Sure, he was born in May and I did manage to sneak out to catch one or two of that summer’s big tent pole flicks, but it was in the Autumn of that year that Andi and I really started to take steps from the nest (not together, mind you) and resume some of our leisure activities.

Kill Bill was originally envisioned by writer-director Quentin Tarentino as one massive four-hour epic following his heroine, The Bride, and her mission of vengeance to Kill Bill for having killed her (almost). Sometime in the months prior to release, producer Harvey Weinstein balked at releasing a 4+ hour flick in theaters and suggested the film be lopped into two volumes. Part 1 would arrive in the Fall of ’03. Part 2 would debut the following Spring.

Having now seen both flicks, I find the whole scenario extremely suspect. The two films, while tethered by the same plot, cast and crew look and feel so different, they really do exist as separate stand-alone movies. Where the first film plays as tribute to all the chop-socky Hong Kong fooey that Tarentino drank in at his local grindhouse as a kid, Vol. 2 plays more like the talky pulp-fictions Tarentino made his good name on. Maybe that’s how he constructed the full epic in the first place but I’m not sold. I think they were thinking two volumes all along and simply concocted the tale of the 4 Hour Director’s Cut and the sudden dissection simply to cause buzz and steal press. After all, why after 4 years, have we not seen the Special Edition Director’s Cut? We know Miramax likes money. I’ll tell ya’ why. Tarentino never intended it to be.

Irregardless, the simple fact remains. Kill Bill: Vol. 1 was a fun action flick featuring those kicky references and wink-wink homages that Tarentino is famous for. Kill Bill: Vol. 2 is a great flick on its own but as a follow-up to part 1 it is masterful, working as a great stand alone piece of cinematic story-telling as well as deepening the importance of that first flick.

This one is traditional Tarentino, with some great dialogue sequences taking over for the kinetic action scenes in the first volume. Sure, he stages a few fights (including a bruiser that rips a mobile home inside out) but the action is dialed back in favor of acting and it’s these sequences that demonstrate why Uma Thurman remains Quentin’s muse. The latter segments, when The Bride confronts Bill and his secret, are heart-breaking – revealing new depths to Tarentino’s screenwriting skills and Thurman’s emoting ability. Quentin also busts out one of his trademark pop-culture rants – giving David Carradine’s Bill a great monologue on the Superman mythos which works wonderfully in its scene and also makes a great deal of sense – casting Superman in a much different light than ever before.

The highest praise I can give this film is I really wish I didn’t waste 4 years between installments. The Kill Bill series ranks alongside Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs as important films in modern American cinema.

3.   Gone Baby Gone

[movie 4.0]
In my last post, I covered Michael Clayton, paying specific attention to the short shrift that George Clooney seems to get in some critical circles. Here’s the Yin to that Yang. Ben Affleck, also cut from the Traditional Movie Star cloth, has always bothered me. While I liked him in Good Will Hunting, there was just something about him (too cocky) that rubbed me the wrong way. You could almost look at the two guys and see similarities – good looks, good notices in early flicks, both had blockbuster films dangled in front of them. But Clooney went after the art while Affleck followed the money.

Then Affleck felt the backlash and his star began to plummet. His films began a steadily declining series of diminishing returns (Daredevil, Changing Lanes) and it looked like he was on his way out. It’s the downfall that good looking guys like Clooney, Johnny Depp and Heath Ledger managed to avoid by chasing character roles in favor of marquee lights. Affleck (like Orlando Bloom) appeared to choose poorly.

Well, if this film is any indication, maybe Affleck would be better served behind the camera. For his directorial debut, he allied with Dennis Lehane (Mystic River) and grabbed the rights to his crime-thriller.

In a way, this film represents a do-over for Affleck. In addition to directing the film, Affleck returned to his roots and penned the screenplay – his first since that Oscar win for Good Will Hunting. In addition, by latching onto Lehane, Affleck goes home again, bringing his cast and crew to the mean streets of Dorchester where the tale of a missing girl and ensuing corruption plays out.

Right from the opening frames, I thought Affleck nailed it. He may be an upper-crust Cambridge kid, but he’s traveled well and knows the hard-wrought three-decker squalor that symbolizes much of Dorchester. Affleck’s camera stalks these gloomy neighborhoods, capturing the depression that drowns its inhabitants, with an unflinching eye. In essence, he casts Boston and more importantly, its sister cities, as tough boroughs – the types of neighborhoods you wouldn’t want to wander past sundown.

Affleck has also cast his flick with an expert stable of character actors. While he hands the primary protagonist roles to his baby bro, Casey, and the luminous Michelle Monghan, he colors in the corners with a treasure trove of riches including Ed Harris, Morgan Freeman and the great John Ashton (Taggert from Beverly Hills Cop). Then there’s Amy Ryan’s Oscar-nominated turn as the coke-addled deadbeat Mom. Having caught her performance as Holly on the current season of The Office, I can only say this – now THAT is an actress. The two roles and her performances couldn’t be any less related.

The one area where the film stumbles is the plot. When you strip away the local color and authenticity, you’re left with a standard police procedural – the hunt for a missing girl. Most of the time, Affleck and Lehane hurdle those criticisms through a series of twists and turns and a veritable rogue’s gallery of sinister characters but there is a stretch in the middle where the film doesn’t seem that far removed from an episode of Law & Order: SVU. Fortunately, Affleck sticks the landing and offers up a conclusion and coda that is unwavering in its morally questionable demands. From a narrative standpoint, he makes some tough choices and sticks with them, sending you from the film pondering the actions of that last reel. Those last moments will haunt you.

Ben Affleck is a real talent and has a great career ahead of him, even if it isn’t the one People had picked out for him.

4.   Kiss Kiss Bang Bang

[movie 3.5]
Shane Black was the man in the late 80’s. He was arguably the first screenwriter I knew by name, simply because his prose had formed the basis for some of the best action flicks to come out during their heyday, including the original Lethal Weapon, the film that reignited and redefined the buddy-cop genre. Black became the writer du jour for Hollywood who chased after him for record-breaking deals, including the unprecedented multi-million dollar purchase of his spec script, The Long Kiss Goodnight. Never seen it? There’s a reason Black disappeared. Following that flicks’ crushing failure, he was Black listed.

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang represents Black’s first script in almost a decade and also marks his directorial debut. In order to get financing, he called up his old buddy, producer Joel Silver (Die Hard, Predator, The Matrix Trilogy, etc), who greenlit Black’s breezy tome provided he kept the budget to a shadow of his former extravaganzas.

The time off and lowered budget – as well as light, playful performances by two actors in need of a comeback (Robert Downey Jr. and Val Kilmer) – have brought Black back. Yes, I know Downey is now the new Depp following his resurrection in this past summer’s Iron Man, but what do you think got him that role in the first place? It was this one.

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang sort of plays as a greatest hits of Black’s stock clichés. You have the two opposites attracted together (in this case, it’s Downey Jr’s thief-turned-actor brought together with Kilmer’s gay private eye named Gay Perry). Then there’s a damsel in distress (Michelle Monaghan as the femme fatale). And the pre-requisite powerful rich white guy (Corbin Bernsen riffing off his mid-80’s TV stardom). All of these elements are stitched together through Black’s script which mixes tough-guy action flick posturing with playful, pop-culture riffs.

I found the film to be enjoyable but it doesn’t necessarily stick with you. I laughed a lot while watching it and really saw what Jon Favreau caught in Downey Jr. when casting his Iron Man. Kilmer was lighter than he’s ever been (even if he’s looking significantly heavier than ever before). And Michelle Monaghan lights up every scene.

My big knock is the plot. It’s completely ridiculous. This is one of those check-your-brain at the door flicks where you just take everything as it comes and try not to over think anything. Downey Jr. provides a running narration (occasionally taking control of the film as his own personal telestrator) and while it’s fun while watching it, as a story-telling device it begins to get gimmicky. Like I said, just try not to think too much about it and you’ll have fun with this flick.

Comments now closed (3)

  • I’d give KKBB 4.5 Eberts. I like the ridiculous plot, the fourth wall breakage and the fact that while I really enjoyed watching it, it doesn’t really stay with me. Most of the time, I am all about fire-and-forget movies. I want to be entertained for 90-120 minutes and then I’m done.

    The other three are already in my queue.

  • Ugh – I CAN’T STAND Forest Whittaker…

    Wow – this is the one time I’ve felt ahead of the game… 2 out of 4 of these I’ve already seen (KB v2 and GBG)
    Loved Kill Bill v2 – especially the “training sequence” and the “trailer fight with Elle (Daryl Hannah)(I still squirm thinking about how that fight ended)

    I really liked GBG as well, I thought it was very well written, directed and acted – especially Amy Ryan

    I’ll have to add KKBB to the queue

  • Hmmm…only saw GBG, which I really liked in that disturbing-made-you-think-about-it-the-next-day kind of way. Uma Thurman creeps me out, so I’ve never seen the Bill series, although I think Uncle Ron is a fan!