Sunday, October 19, 2014

Some old reviews: Wedding Crashers, Lady in the Water, Frost/Nixon

One of the tenants in the apartment building, where Lady in the Water takes place, is a crotchety old film critic who he feels he’s seen it all. “I have come to accept there’s nothing original left in this world,” he says. This is ironic because if this fictitious character knew of the movie he was inadvertently a part of, he would think differently.

It is hard to deny that if nothing else, M. Night Shamylan has a very unique voice. He certainly isn’t the only current filmmaker who’s original but everything in the tone of his films from the characters to the setting and plot feels a little bit off the norm.

In Lady in the Water, Shamylan conjures up a fantasy world that intrigues us in the in the way it intersects with a seemingly mundane group of tenants in an apartment. The lady referenced in the title (Bryce Dallas Howard) is a sea nymph who is discovered in the apartment’s pool* by the building’s super, Cleveland Heep (Paul Giamatti). Giamatti reaffirms how underrated of an actor he is in the way he gives unforeseen depth to the character of Cleveland. Mourning the death of his wife and kids, Cleveland is a hesitant and uneasy man with a stutter. However, when the girl says her life is in danger, he is overcome with too much empathy and devotes himself to helping her find her way back home. A cryptic folk story told to him by one of his tenants reveals the identity of the girl as an otherworldly prophetic figure who seeks out three groups of tenants in the building and Cleveland must sift through the colorful group of characters that populate his building to find out who they are.

The film creates a constant state of suspense with shots reminiscent of Jaws that show victims being attacked from the point-of-view of the sharks, or in this case mythical beasts that Howard’s character is fleeing from. It’s main strength, however, is how Shamylan’s storytelling is different from anything we’ve ever seen before. Even when the film moves a little slow or gets bogged up in plot holes, we’re too intrigued by Shamylan’s vivid imagination not to want to follow along and see where he’s going.

*One quick potential plot hole to clear up in case you’re wondering how it could be remotely believable to have a sea nymph appear out of a swimming pool: this pool isn’t a concrete hole in the ground but rather it was built over some natural body of water and the sea nymph appears out of some chasm and emerges through a vent.


Directed by Ron Howard, Frost/Nixon is on par with the most insightful of political dramas yet it plays out like a riveting sports film.

The arena of competition in this case is public perception and the “sport” is debate. The contestants? Ex-President Richard Nixon (Frank Langella) and B-level talk show host David Frost (Michael Sheen) who are trying to earn critical respectability over a course of public interviews. At the time (1977 to be exact), David Frost was trying to become respected as a journalist and earn bigger endorsement deals and Richard Nixon was trying to elevate his speaking fees as well as earn himself a place back among the Washington elite.

The way the public was so glued to their tv screens during the presidential debates the year this film proved that the film’s theme- public perception is everything- is as timely as ever. Is Frost/Nixon commenting on whether democracy’s imperfections can be weeded out through this medium or does the film apologetically state that politics are a zero-sum game? As Frost says in one scene when the President tells him how much alike they are, “I agree but only one of us can win.”

The film is an interesting commentary on the American political myth about the great political outsider who comes from nowhere to be the President of the U.S. and leads the country to greatness. Frost/Nixon is the story of a guy who’s an outsider whose dream of saving democracy and leading the U.S. foward isn’t to become president but to take down an illegitimate US President. Through this inversion, the film teaches us that it’s easier to build up a man than to expose him for what he really is.

The script, by Peter Morgan, made these thoughtful points but also made the film exciting. Even the mundane things- the adjusting of the participants’ ties before the interview, small-talk between staffers, the communications between the tv crew-  all became something to watch. Morgan, who also wrote “The Queen” and “Special Relationship” has an interest in the mores of political conduct and, sometimes he can’t translate his narrow interest in the topic to something exciting for the audience. This is one of those exceptions.

Langella and Sheen are fantastic in their roles and with so little drama in the film outside of their interactions, it’s fair to say they make the movie (although Kevin Bacon provides a highlight in one of the character actor’s more intense supporting roles to date). As someone who’s never seen the original Frost/Nixon debates, I can’t say with authority how they compare to the original, but they two create very deep characters upon which the drama transpires.

 The film was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar and fully deserved it.

From the same comedic team (more or less) that brought you Zoolander, Dodgeball, and Old School, the latest annual installment of a comedy has arrived about people who don’t actually exist (frat boys who technically aren’t college students, professional dodgeball players, etc), but could very easily exist when you think about it.

The comedic team that I’m talking about is combination of at least one guy with the last name Wilson, Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughn and Will Ferrell who rotate playing the lead, playing the sidekick/rival, not being in the movie at all, and providing a much loved 2-minute cameo. Owen Wilson and Vaughn take the leads as two more characters that guys could easily enjoy vicariously living through for a couple hours: John Beckwith and Jeremy Klein (Wilson) are two divorce lawyers who spend their spare time crashing weddings solely to meet girls.

After years of practice they’ve refined it down to an art. One of the best running comic gags, in fact, is that they have a lengthy rule book that they memorize and regularly cite from in various situations.
The story begins when after a very successful wedding season, shown through a well-made opening montage; the two buddies decide to end off the season with a bang by crashing what will be their most high stakes wedding to date. Why this wedding is a bigger deal to them than any other wedding is beyond me, but nevertheless, the two go to the wedding and both find themselves with bigger messes than they can clean up by wedding’s end. Jeremy falls for one of the bride’s sisters, Claire, and all is going well until he meets her boyfriend. Rachel McAdams (The Notebook) plays Claire a little too lackadaisically charming to come off as anything but clichd.

John, meanwhile, has such good luck with the bride’s other sister that he manages to have sex with her before the wedding is even over. Unfortunately, she mistakes his love of the chase for true love and his efforts to flee the scene get foiled by his love-struck partner in crime who insists they stick around. This is the point in the movie when, like John, it would be best to flee the scene ourselves.

While the film is lined with sharp and hilarious snippets of dialogue throughout, the story is unevenly paced and it never really gets back to that screwball comedy feel it attains in the film’s first half hour.

If not for the fact that these guys will probably be appearing in movie theaters again in some cameo or comedy vehicle before I even finish mourning their failure, I’d have been disappointed because with a few minor tweaks, I could have seen this movie working. For example, one of the downturns that are used in these types of romantic comedies to prevent the guy and girl from getting together before working things out takes up almost a year of the story and one of the characters gets depressed to the point of feeling suicidal. In this scene and in general, the movie too often drifts a little too far away from lighthearted-comedy mode. Considering how with characters that revel in the joy of taking advantage of girls at weddings, the movie’s tone is quite cynical when you think about it, it wouldn’t be a good idea to get the audience taking the film too seriously at all.

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