“Unless you’ve been living in happy isolation, you know that newspapers face a cascading series of problems. Declining revenues. Declining circulation. Uncertainty about the future. No need to recite the entire litany here, except by way of noting that the words ‘layoffs’ and ‘buyouts’ have appeared in far too many stories about too many newspapers lately, including this one.” — Rocky Mountain News film critic Robert Denerstein, in a piece announcing his departure due to the above factors.
I was hoping for something much sharper and smarter from James Gray‘s We Own The Night, which showed at the Cannes Film Festival on Thursday, and which Columbia will be releasing stateside sometime later this year. It’s a slam-bang urban action piece by way of a Brooklyn family-ties melodrama…the kind in which everyone bellows their feelings. It’s good to see Gray back on his feet after years in movie jail (his last film was The Yards, which opened seven years ago) but this is too often a crude, unsubtle, difficult-to-digest film.
Joaquin Pheonix; Eva Mendes
I’ll tell you right now that there’s a mild spoiler or two in this piece.
The most recent high-water marks for family crime films, in my book, are The Sopranos on HBO and The Departed. Gray’s film is nowhere near this league. As vigorous and heated as Night obviously is (the two most thrilling scenes are an invasion of a Russian-mafia cocaine apartment and a car chase/attack scene in the driving rain), the writing is thick and pulp. The story felt imposed upon the characters rather than characters driving the story. I kept getting the feeling that the dialogue wasn’t quite there on the page so the actors were improvising all through it.
A “friend” of the film argues that “what [they] were going for was an archetypal throwback to ’70s filmmaking rather than the more complex literariness of The Sopranos. This is not a ‘modern√É¬¢√¢‚Äö¬¨√Ç¬ù film’ — it has no metacommentary going on, amd has no literary aspirations. The Departed was complex to a fault (there are several scenes toward the end of that movie that make no sense, but no one cares because it√É¬¢√¢‚Äö¬¨√¢‚Äû¬¢s so fun.”
I got into a friendly debate yesterday with this guy, so here’s a list of my quibbles along with his counter-arguments:
Joaquin Pheonix‘s Bobby — a nightclub owne-manager in denial about his familial affinities to a tribe of New York cops, including a hard-nosed detective brother (Mark Wahlberg) and an equally hard-nosed dad (Robert Duvall) — is highly dislikable for the way he refuses to let girlfriend Eva Mendes be involved with anything important– he seems to just wants to fuck her when they’re alone and that’s it.
Counterpoint: “You didn√É¬¢√¢‚Äö¬¨√¢‚Äû¬¢t get the impression that Bobby really loved Amanda but knew that his family (who are quasi-racist, remember) would never let her into the fold because she’s a party girl? Bobby sort of knows deep down she’s just not constitutionally able to be a cop√É¬¢√¢‚Äö¬¨√¢‚Äû¬¢s wife.”
Would the wounded Wahlberg, admitted hours earlier into a hospital for bullet wounds, have blood oozing out of his cheek and his hair? Don’t hospital staffers constantly dress wounds to keep everything as sterile and germ-free as possible?
Counterpoint: “Wahlberg√É¬¢√¢‚Äö¬¨√¢‚Äû¬¢s post-gunshot look is absolutely real. [The filmmakers] did a ton of research — there was a doctor who worked in ICU in the 80s advising. But if it doesn√É¬¢√¢‚Äö¬¨√¢‚Äû¬¢t play. it doesn√É¬¢√¢‚Äö¬¨√¢‚Äû¬¢t play.”
I know Pheonix has been keeping his family ties a secret in the beginning, but would the Russian mob guys be so stupid as to not have a clue that Wahlberg is his brother?
Counterpoint: “This is the pre-internet age” — Night is set in 1988 — “when people could absolutely keep their familial connections at arm√É¬¢√¢‚Äö¬¨√¢‚Äû¬¢s length. In fact, James based Bobby√É¬¢√¢‚Äö¬¨√¢‚Äû¬¢s character on a real guy who hid his cop connections. Remember also that he had worked is way up from bartender to manager so there would be zero suspicion. Also, the Russians weren√É¬¢√¢‚Äö¬¨√¢‚Äû¬¢t cunning — they were just brutally violent.”
“Would Jumbo, the big tough guy who excels at beating other guys up, really collapse and start weeping like that when Pheonix starts to lean on him, and when the cops grill him?”
CounterpointVadim Nezhinski — what is that, some kind of perverse mirror-image identity of Njinsky, the famed ballet dancer? The movie is full of little “what the fuck?” irritants.
Counterpoint: “I think the fact that these details irritated you is a sign that you just did not buy into the more operatic core emotions this movie is selling.
“Those critics for whom the movie is properly positioned I think will appreciate the movie√É¬¢√¢‚Äö¬¨√¢‚Äû¬¢s lack of irony and gratuitous hyper-reality. This is a very basic story where a lot of the emotions are laid bare. We are hoping that because of the car chase, the overall level of detail, and the deliberateness, critics will key in to the Friedkin/Visconti reference points and not judge the movie against a winking movie like The Departed, which I think sometimes gets confused with √É¬¢√¢‚Äö¬¨√ã≈ìsmartness√É¬¢√¢‚Äö¬¨√¢‚Äû¬¢ and √É¬¢√¢‚Äö¬¨√ã≈ìsharpness√É¬¢√¢‚Äö¬¨√¢‚Äû¬¢ but can sometimes exist in an emotional vacuum.
“The most ironic thing of all is that in research screenings The Departed never tested above a 65 (top two boxes — excellent and very good) whereas We Own The Night has tested in the high 80s. So [the team is] definitely confident about word of mouth. Good Night and Good Luck tested at 48; Monsters Ball got a 23 (norms are about 65); In The Bedroom at 25. And then reviewers told audiences those movies were brilliant so they wound up with great exit polls and word-of-mouth. Sheep…”
Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End has a 37% positive from the Rotten Tomatoes elite. Even MCN’s David Poland, who wrote last year that the second Pirates film gave him “joy,” says it’s “the least of the three films.”
If you read the reviews by two of the easygoing friendlies — N.Y. Daily News critic Jack Matthews, and Variety‘s Brian Lowry — you’ll realize they’re not that friendly. The Chicago Tribune‘s Michael Wilmington, the Chicago Sun Times‘ Richard Roeper and the notoriously accommodating Michael Rechtshaffen, critic for the Hollywood Reporter, all gave it a pass.
And of course, the domestic and int’l tallies came to $58 million for Thursday alone. As Poland and others have stated, the highest five-day tally is $172.9 million, which P3 seems on track to overtake.
“One reason for joy [at this year’s Cannes Film Festival] is that word ‘art,’ which isn’t always mentioned in the same breath, much less the same paragraph, when Americans talk about movies,” writes N.Y. Times critic Manohla Dargis in a good sum-up piece about the best snob highbrow films that have played there.
“One of the sustaining pleasures of Cannes is that it allows you to immerse yourself fully from early morning to evening in the kind of aesthetically adventurous, intellectually exhilarating cinematic practices that end up in the American art-house ghetto or being shut out of theaters completely.”
The reasons for the shut-out are sad or tragic or both, but I’ve always said and still believe that the greatest films are those that appeal to not just the Manohla Dargis crowd but also the somewhat more primitive, less intellectually high falutin’ moviegoers. Most aesthetically adventurous, intellectually exhilarating cinematic practices do not straddle this divide, which is probably inevitable and natural. Almost all truly great films are met (at first) with indifference or derision by the mob.
But I’ve always tried to live in (and keep in touch with) both worlds. All my life I’ve tried to absorb and understand the finest films made by the greatest filmmakers, but at the same time apply the educated but not-overly-elitist criteria that I absorbed from my suburban middle-class New Jersey upbringing, which was influenced by the fact that I was always an all-around B student except when it came to knowing films and the film world. (I was also pretty good in art class.)
“Amid the glamour and the French Riviera sun, more and more Wall Street banks, private equity firms and hedge funds are coming to the 12-day Cannes festival — the world’s largest international film market — to try to arrange and finance entertainment deals,” Liza Klaussmann reported yesterday for the N.Y. Times.
And yet, despite the story’s solid writing and sturdy reporting, it instantly put me to sleep. Money guys in suits put people to sleep the world over every day and night…boring, boring, boring. And what do they get out of it? Massive salaries, absurdly spacious McMansions, nifty cars and the power to attract the tastiest and classiest arm-candy women as prospective wives, girlfriends or mistresses.
“More money is streaming into the industry, and that has helped raise the number of American firms present at Cannes, which is up 7 percent this year, compared with a 3 percent rise in overall participants,” Klaussmann adds.
“Merrill Lynch, Citigroup, Royal Bank of Scotland and JPMorgan Chase, the descendant of Chemical, as well as hedge funds like Atticus Capital and various companies backed by the likes of Providence Equity Partners and the Texas Pacific Group are all here this year, competing for deals”…zzzzzzz.