Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Dirty, Rotten Scoundrels (1988) ****1/2

You'd be hard-pressed to find a movie from the '80s that has aged better than “Dirty, Rotten Scoundrels” or that is more fun. The film is a comedy classic, but I hadn't watched it in years. It popped up on Netflix, so I had to press “Play,” and I wasn't disappointed. If anything, the movie has improved with age. Steve Martin and Michael Caine are in perfect form, each contributing his own comic style. Caine's dry, British wit and Martin's goofy, physical comedy perfectly balance each other, and then they are spiced up nicely by the addition of Glenne Headly as the ingenue they try to swindle.

Caine plays Lawrence, a well-dressed smooth-talker who seduces wealthy women by claiming to be the exiled prince of a small, embattled country. Once he has bedded them and told them the story of his brave, resistance fighters, these women tend to foist money and valuables on him to support his valiant fighters. It's nice work if you can get it, and the scams maintain Lawrence in a beautiful ocean-side estate and a genteel lifestyle in the south of France.

The genteel part of Lawrence's life is threatened when Steve Martin's Freddy wanders into town. Freddy is an uncultured, uncouth, small-time con artist. His presence on Lawrence's home turf threatens to poison the waters for Lawrence's future schemes. Freddy has to go, but one scheme after another fails to hustle him out of town. The two finally wind up in a bet over who can first con money out of Janet (Headly), whom they believe to be a wealthy heiress. Janet, however, turns out to be other than she seems.

Long-con movies (where a con-man sets up an elaborate plot to cheat another con-man) are a favorite of mine, and “Dirty, Rotten Scoundrels” is one of the best. Even though it's actually more of a comedy, the multi-layered swindles are delicious, and the people who get cheated always deserve it. (It's worth noting that the women Lawrence habitually cheats are almost exclusively the unfaithful wives of wealthy men.) I can't say that this is Steve Martin's finest movie, because I think “Roxanne” deserves that honor. It's even more dangerous to try to pick a single best film out of Michael Caine's imposing career. Nonetheless, I think this film should fit into a Top 5 for both actors, and for Glenne Headly as well. It's a comedy classic, and even if you've seen it before, you should watch it again. You won't feel cheated.

4.5 stars out of 5

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Wedding Crashers (2005) ****

So I figured out why I find it so hard to like actor Bradley Cooper. The first thing I would have seen him in is “Wedding Crashers.” In this film he plays a douchebag so well that they should have re-made all those 80's movies and cast him as the preppy villain with the up-turned collar. I've seen him in a lot of other movies now, and he's quite a good actor, but it's hard not to think of him as a jerk.

Besides the Bradley Cooper revelation, I found on re-watching “Wedding Crashers” that the movie has aged quite well. It's definitely one to get on DVD for multiple viewings. Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn play John and Jeremy, a couple of boy-men whose hobby is sneaking into weddings to enjoy free food and booze and to pick up girls. The endless string of parties and one-night-stands is presented in a fun montage that makes it clear that these guys aren't merely free-loaders. Sure, they are un-invited guests, but they are the life of every party. They dance with little girls and old ladies. Every wedding would be more fun with these guys.

John, however, starts to feel the utter emptiness of all the hookups and partying. Then, at a high-profile wedding, John spots Claire (Rachel McAdams), and it's love at first sight. Jeremy hooks up with Claire's crazy sister Gloria (Isla Fisher) and the two get invited to spend the weekend at the family beach house. Jeremy spends the weekend trying to fend off the hyper-clingy Gloria, while John tries to separate Claire from her obnoxious fiance Sack (Bradley Cooper).

The plot would be intolerably improbable and trite if it weren't for the stellar cast, who simply bring the comedy in waves. Rachel McAdams and Isla Fisher are completely adorable and just as funny as Vaughn and Wilson. Bradley Cooper, as I said,is so good at playing a jerk that it becomes hard to imagine him otherwise. There's also a cameo from Will Ferrell, as the god-father of wedding crashing. He's actually funny, which goes to show that Ferrell's schtick is actually fun in small doses. Overall, “Wedding Crashers” is exuberant, funny, romantic, and slightly raunchy. It's the perfect date movie, and a guaranteed laugh at any time.

4 stars out of 5

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Moon (2009) ***1/2

Making a movie with just one actor may help keep the budget down, but it can't be easy for a single star to provide compelling storytelling for an entire film. This web article lists a few films that have tried it, with varying levels of success. With a bravura performance in “Moon,” Sam Rockwell proves that it can be done and done well.

Rockwell plays Sam Bell, an astronaut stationed on the dark side of the moon. He is nearing the end of a three-year mission there, maintaining harvesting machines that gather and concentrate an energy source, which is then rocketed back to earth. After three years of solitude, Sam is understandably growing stir-crazy, and looking forward very much to seeing his wife and daughter again. Then things start to get weird. I don't want to ruin the story by revealing anything else, but trust me, it's cool!

It isn't true to say that Rockwell is absolutely the only actor in “Moon.” Sam watches a few recorded video messages from earth. He also talks to a robot companion named GERTY, voiced by Kevin Spacey. GERTY is basically a benign version of HAL, from “2001: A Space Odyssey,” with that flat, robotic voice, so when it comes to emoting, Rockwell is still doing all the heavy lifting. For part of the movie, Rockwell acts opposite himself, which I would think is even more of a challenge. As an actor, Rockwell has a rather distinctive style, and given that he is in every scene of “Moon,” your enjoyment of the film will depend a lot on whether you like him. Me, I dig him.

“Moon” explores issues of identity, memory, and reality, all while building a palpable sense of dread. That such a cool film was made on a budget of only $5 million is a testament to first-time director Duncan Jones (who happens to be David Bowie's son). Jones reportedly has a sequel of sorts in mind, a story called “Mute,” set in the same future world as “Moon.” His original plan was to produce “Mute” as a graphic novel, then hopefully as a film. I haven't been able to find any evidence online that the graphic novel got made, but there is talk that if Jones's latest film “Warcraft” does well, “Mute” might happen in some form. I'll be keeping my eyes open, and definitely check it out if it does.

3.5 stars out of 5