March 30, 2014

Trading Places

John Landis, 1983
A bet made between two commodities investor brothers (Ralph Bellamy and Don Ameche) strips rich executive Louis Winthorpe (Dan Akroyd) of his lavish wealthy livelihood and cleverly places it in the hands of bum Billy Ray Valentine (Eddie Murphy) to prove that if a destitute man is given opportunities he will/will not succeed.

Trading Places puts you in a time machine and brings you back to the 1980's. The coke-fueled, horribly clothed, occasionally racist (black-face and all) 1980's. The nostalgia is delivered early on when you get thrown into a dance party where the once-funny and once-edgy Eddie Murphy is trying to keep his new digs in order. The film feels dated, there's no denying that. The biggest example of this is shown when you are smack in the middle of what feels like an antiquated stock exchange with handwritten orders flying through the air and enormous computer screens taking up space. There is an absence of any remarkable cinematography at work. Some of the slapstick comedy is distracting. But it does deliver an original story with some brains behind it. It also delivers some pretty good performances by Akroyd, Murphy and a very young (and it feels weird saying it, beautiful) Jamie Lee Curtis. The whole premise of rich whitey growing complacent and bored in their own wealth, making a one dollar bet on a man's utter demise is completely diabolical but also completely engaging. You sit patiently waiting for the Duke brothers to get their comeuppance. The whole rags to riches / riches to rags dichotomy plays out a bit too swiftly. Billy Ray morphs into the successful executive overnight, and Louis deteriorates into a complete degenerate just as rapidly. Perhaps it's difficult to really showcase a more colorful arch when you only have 119 minutes to work with, and you need to carry the story along. The bottom line is it all falls into place, and the satisfying ending is probably the highlight of the entire film.

March 23, 2014

Deep Impact

Mimi Leder, 1998

A comet is on a collision course with earth. If destroyed, a group of astronauts will have saved the world. If not successfully destroyed, it could be the end of life as we know it.

History hasn't been so kind to Deep Impact, and perhaps that's not right. Perhaps it hasn't gotten it's fair shake. In the world of mostly-bad big budget Hollywood blockbusters, Deep Impact is one of the better end-of-the world pictures. Pitted against Armageddon in the summer of 1998, Leder's doomsday film is worlds above Michael Bay's uninspired Aerosmith-fueled crap-fest. And by no means is this film perfect. Neil Degrasse Tyson probably throws his iPad at the screen when it's on HBO. The idea of landing a spaceship on an giant asteroid and igniting a nuclear bomb in the core of it is a bit over the top. There's some obviously bad performances (Leelee Sobieski & Elijah Wood being two of them). But if you can suspend disbelief, there is some meat on the bones. The build up of the story is done well, and never really falls off the tracks. The ongoing story threads: the government trying to minimize the destruction, the media reporting it, the general population processing the reality of what's going on, the astronauts on their mission to save the world - they all move through the film without really petering out. The idea of a lottery system in place for an emergency evacuation is actually impressively detailed and has a certain moral component to it. Jenny Lerner's conflict with her father marrying a younger woman touches on the micro part of the story. Morgan Freeman isn't bad as the first President of the United States with a tattoo. The special effects are quite solid, they even feel quite ahead of their time. Robert Duvall is good in anything you put him in. There's some accidental comedy too, like the guy reading the newspaper in Washington Square Park at a time when it makes absolutely NO sense to be reading one. There's something seductive about Deep Impact, even if it is just a guilty pleasure that has you waiting to see the big climax. But an argument can be made that there's more it than that. Such as the beautiful score playing through the end credits.

The Station Agent

Thomas McCarthy, 2003
Fin (Peter Dinklage) is a train enthusiast who was born with dwarfism. When his friend dies and the train shop closes, he decides to relocate to the property he inherited to live a life in isolation.

McCarthy succeeds in drawing the sympathy early. Fin's world in Hoboken is an unforgiving one. He is laughed at by the children in the streets, pointed at by the people in the grocery store. When his friend passes, you can't blame him for wanting to get the hell out of the hell he is living in. The only thing that Hoboken had to offer was a job and a companion. Both of those are gone. He hasn't even seen the small bit of land he inherits but assumes it's an upgrade from the status quo. The backdrop of the run-down rail-yards and miles of power lines doesn't necessarily paint a warm landscape. Fin is a man who has been faced with adversity all of his life but also struggles with geographical limitations. Getting through his days are work, not because of physical limitations but because of the world around him. He appears to be on the edge of complete surrender by the time that he walks to Newfoundland. He's convinced that the one genuine person has died, and there's not another one left in the world. When he arrives in the small town, the ridicule is diminished but still present. When the friendly souls surface, it almost feels as if he is the one who passed and he is in some kind of strange afterlife. The film has a certain mythical quality to it in that sense. Food truck Joe is too friendly, to the point of being disconcerting. This works against his character too, because he truly seems like a person of unlimited patience and persistence. While McCarthy's simple story is earnest, at times it feels like it's dragging. While Dinklage is clearly a talented actor and provides a layered performance, when he finally opens up to Joe and Olivia he doesn't lay a lot out there. That's disappointing because the film  is really a character study, built for Fin. He succeeds in constructing the beaten man, but fails at showing us a man who has truly opened up even though the story forces him to. Not that he needed to make an embellished character arch with a happily-ever-after conclusion, it would have been nice to see Fin truly conquer something within himself, rather than just crack a smile.