Monthly Archives: October 2005

Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang (2005)

Shane Black was a Hollywood icon by the time he was in his early 20s. In 1987 he sold a script called Lethal Weapon to producer Joel Silver that put a jolt back into action flicks and gave the template for all buddy-cop comedies to come. He earned a then-record $1.7 million for his script, The Last Boy Scout, topped later by the $2 million paycheck he got for The Long Kiss Goodnight. It’s a shame both scripts were marginalized by their film directors. Black went underground for a long time, nursing his wounds over what had happened to his screenplays. Then in 2004, Black began his comeback vehicle, a modern day detective story that also lampooned Hollywood, and this time he’d direct his own material. The final product is called Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, and Black’s comeback film is nothing short of a cinematic knockout and the most refreshingly entertaining movie of all 2005.

Harry Lockhart (Robert Downey Jr.) is a small-time crook on the run from the cops when he stumbles into an acting audition. They hand him a script, tell him his partner’s dead, and are so impressed with his “acting” that he’s immediately flown to Hollywood. Harry is teamed up with Gay Perry (Val Kilmer), a cop who does advisory work and just happens to be gay. During a house party, Harry reunites with a childhood friend, Harmony Faith Lane (Michelle Monaghan). They reminisce about their childhoods in Indiana and their fascination with the Johnny Gossamer detective novels, but she has much more on her mind: her sister’s gone missing and she needs Harry to find her. Trouble is Harry hasn’t told her he’s not a real detective. He’s gone from crook to pretend actor to pretend detective, and before Christmas is over he’ll be up to his neck in bodies, intrigue, double-crosses and all the stuff that would make for a rip-roaring Johnny Gossamer book.

First and foremost, Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang is one deliriously fun party. The film moves at breakneck speed through its smart, cheeky gags. Black’s dialogue is hilarious and feels so effortlessly natural coming from Downey Jr. and Kilmer, like he’s got their speech patterns tattooed in his brain. In fact, the dialogue feels so robust and natural, never glib and self-conscious, that it almost comes across as feeling like a heavy improv session between two immensely talented actors. Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, Black’s opus to the hard-boiled detective genre, has more twists and turns than a seizure patient doing the Hokey Pokey. You never know where this movie will head next or what joke will topple you over with unexpected laughter, and that’s what makes Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang so unabashedly thrilling to watch. Even when the movie does start to veer into more conventional material, Downey Jr. is there as our narrator to point out what we’re all thinking and to make fun of the expected. Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang can get jubilantly perverse at parts (a corpse getting a golden shower), but the macabre touches never deflect from the film’s boundless, inconsumable energy. Everyone is having the time of their lives in Black’s comic caper, and it shows.

Seriously, this movie is the definition of a laugh riot. It’s like a carnival ride through a gag factory (that sounds kind of spooky, actually), and Black has such an assured confidence to his writing, evidenced in his set-ups, reversals, and the insightful tweaking of Hollywood that could only come from one of its own (Harry laments that the nation turned over and shook and all the normal girls hung on while the crazies landed in L.A.). Here’s a conversation between Harmony and Harry about a promiscuous actress:

Harmony: Well, for starters, she’s been f***ed more times than she’s had a hot meal.
Harry: Yeah, I heard about that. It was neck-and-neck and then she skipped lunch.

Just re-reading it makes me laugh. How many comedies make you laugh just thinking about them in retrospect? [i]Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang[/i] is one of those oh so rare delights. It even has a talking bear in it!

The lone detraction for Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang is the movie’s overall lack of substance. It doesn’t reach for anything more than bold entertainment, and to that end it succeeds in spades. Some may argue the movie is spinning so fast to try and distract you from its empty center, but I say enjoy the ride while it lasts. I only wish this movie was longer, like Lord of the Rings-long. I did not want to leave this world and these characters. My claw marks might still be visible on the armrests where they had to throw me out.

Black also proves to be a very slick director with a natural eye for camera placement. His photography is very pleasing, relying on different light placements to add surreal touches that accentuate the narrative. Black keeps his movie at a breathless pace and knows how to handle his actors. His narrative side-steps enliven the film and grab our attention, and Harry’s voice over is never overused to explain the minutia the script cannot. The only drawback for Black might be that his film could be too smart for its own good. I mean, most of the movie going public will be stooped by a joke about adverbs. Black has an obvious love for detective yarns and film noir, that’s evident with the film’s style and the fact that chapter titles are Raymond Chandler novels, but some familiarity with this world will sharpen your experience. Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang never panders to its audience, and that may hurt Black as far as making a movie that will reach out to Middle America (Perry apologizes to the Midwest for using the “f-bomb” as often as they do).

The chemistry between Downey Jr. and Kilmer is incredible, positioning them as one of the finest comic pairings in recent cinema history. Their indelible camaraderie is the true heart of Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang. They bat insults and injuries with comic aplomb. Both characters are unapologetic, Harry as a nattering criminal screw-up way in over his head, and Perry as gay man who’s fine with that and will rip your testicles off just the same if you cross him. He’s not stereotypical swishy or flamboyant, but he’s very enjoyably dry and sarcastic. Both actors have a history of being troublesome to work with, but Downey Jr. and Kilmer have been two of our most amazingly talented actors … when they want to be. Kilmer is the coolest customer in the film, being nonchalantly badass even when he’s about to blow his top (this is NOT a gay joke, by the way). Downey Jr. is his usual charming, amiable, fast-talking self, but even his tiniest details speak comedic volumes, like his reactions and general awkward physicality. I cannot imagine anyone else doing as excellent a job in these roles, especially Harrison Ford who was sought by producers for the Gay Perry part (feel free to shudder at what might have been Hollywood Homicide 2.

Monaghan is a break-out actress that could have been even more break-out-er by this time. She’s mostly had small unmemorable roles in films like Unfaithful and The Bourne Supremacy, but 2005 was set to be her year. She had roles in Constantine, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, and Syriana. Unfortunately, her scenes were cut from Syriana and Constantine, and her role was drastically pared down in Mr. and Mrs. Smith. The only thing Monaghan has to show for 2005 is Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, and that’s all she’ll need. She’s bright and pretty, but she also gives Harmony a great sense of being run down, another girl getting off the bus to Hollywood with stars in her eyes only to find out the harsh reality. Her combative relationship with Harry as they reconnect and try and wonder how they went astray is another film high point. She’s a comedic asset and should be on Hollywood’s speed dial if they need a charming, funny, capable actress.

Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang is a wicked good time. It’s complex, twisting, riveting, unique, hilarious, and just about every synonym you can think for the word “awesome.” Black’s comeback may be too smart for its own good, and having a general understanding of film noir will enhance your experience, but this is one comic caper that’s so much fun, so stylish, so damned entertaining, who cares if it lacks substance? Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang is a refreshing blast of fresh air and should please anyone looking for a smart Hollywood film mixed with doses of their familiar sex and violence. But that’s what makes Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang so exhilarating, nothing about it could be classified as familiar. Seeing this flick is like being invited to the party of the year. Just make sure to head to your theater before your invitation gets lost in the mail.

Nate’s Grade: A

Elizabethtown (2005)

Cameron Crowe is a filmmaker I generally admire. He makes highly enjoyable fables about love conquering all, grand romantic gestures, and finding your voice. His track record speaks for itself: Say Anything, Singles, Jerry Maguire, Almost Famous (I forgive him the slipshod remake of Vanilla Sky, though it did have great artistry and a bitchin’ soundtrack). Crowe is a writer that can zero in on character with the precision of a surgeon. He’s a man that can turn simple formula (boy meets girl) and spin mountains of gold. With these possibly unfair expectations, I saw Elizabethtown while visiting my fiancĂ© in New Haven, Connecticut. We made a mad dash to the theater to be there on time, which involved me ordering tickets over my cell phone. I was eager to see what Crowe had in store but was vastly disappointed with what Elizabethtown had to teach me.

Drew Baylor (Orlando Bloom) opens the film by narrating the difference between a failure and a fiasco. Unfortunately for him, he’s in the corporate cross-hairs for the latter. Drew is responsible for designing a shoe whose recall will cost his company an astounding “billion with a B” dollars (some research of an earlier cut of the film says the shoe whistled while you ran). His boss (Alec Baldwin) takes Drew aside to allow him to comprehend the force of such a loss. Drew returns to his apartment fully prepared to engineer his own suicide machine, which naturally falls apart in a great comedic beat. Interrupting his plans to follow career suicide with personal suicide is a phone call from his sister (Judy Greer). Turns out Drew’s father has died on a trip visiting family in Elizabethtown, Kentucky. Drew is sent on a mission from his mother (Susan Sarandon) to retrieve his father and impart the family’s wishes. On the flight to Kentucky, Drew gets his brain picked by Claire (Kirsten Dunst), a cheery flight attendant. While Drew is surrounded by his extended family and their down homsey charm and eccentricities, he seeks out some form of release and calls Claire. They talk for hours upon hours and form a fast friendship and stand on the cusp of maybe something special.

I think the most disappointing aspect of Elizabethtown for me is how it doesn’t have enough depth to it. Crowe definitely wears his heart on his sleeve but has never been clumsy about it. Elizabethtown wants to be folksy and cute and impart great lessons about love, life, and death. You can’t reach that plateau when you have characters walking around stating their inner feelings all the time, like Drew and Claire do. They might as well be wearing T-shirts that explain any intended subtext. Crowe squanders his film’s potential by stuffing too many storylines into one pot, thus leaving very little attachment to any character. Elizabethtown has some entertaining details, chiefly Chuck and Cindy’s drunk-on-love wedding, but the film as a whole feels too loose and disconnected to hit any emotional highs. If you want a better movie about self-reawakening, rent Garden State. If you want a better movie about dealing with loss, rent Moonlight Mile.

This is Bloom’s first test of acting that doesn’t involve a faux British accent and some kind of heavy weaponry. The results are not promising. Bloom is a pin-up come to life like a female version of Weird Science, a living mannequin, possibly an alien with great skin, but he isn’t a real compelling actor. He has about two emotions in his repertoire. His whiny American-ized accent seems to be playing a game of tag. He’s not a bad actor per se; he just gets the job done without leaving any sort of impression. To paraphrase Claire, he’s a “substitute leading man.”

Dunst is chirpy, kooky and cute-as-a-button but is better in small doses. Her accent is much more convincing than Bloom’s. Sarandon deserves pity for being involved in Elizabethtown‘s most improbable, cringe-worthy moment. At her husband’s wake, she turns her time of reflection into a talent show with a stand-up routine and then a horrifying tap dance. Apparently this gesture wins over the extended family who has hated her for decades. Greer (The Village) is utterly wasted in a role that approximates a cameo. Without a doubt, the funniest and most memorable performance is delivered by Baldwin, who perfectly mixes menace and amusement. He takes Drew on a tour of some of the consequences of the loss of a billion dollars, including the inevitable closing of his Wildlife Watchdog group. “We could have saved the planet,” Baldwin says in the most comically dry fashion. Baldwin nails the balance between discomfort and bewilderment.

Elizabethtown wants to be another of Crowe’s smart, feel-good sentimental field trips, but it falls well short. I was dumbfounded to see how little the story progressed. It lays the groundwork for a menagerie of subplots and then, in a rush to finish, caps everyone off with some emotionally unearned payoff. To put it simply, Elizabethtown wants credit and refuses to show its work. The film is packed with characters and ideas before succumbing into an interminable travelogue of America in its closing act, but what cripples Crowe’s film about opening up to emotional growth is that the movie itself doesn’t showcase growth. We see the rough and tumble beginnings of everyone, we see the hugs-all-around end, but we don’t witness that most critical movement that takes the audience from Point A to Point B. The results are beguiling and quite frustrating. Take the subplot about Drew’s cousin, who can?t connect to his father either and wants to be friends to his own son, a shrill little terror, instead of a father. Like most of Elizabethtown‘s storylines, these subplots die of neglect until a half-hearted nod to wrap everything up. Father sees son perform and all is well. Son does little to discipline child but all is well. Elizabethtown is sadly awash in undeveloped storylines and characters and unjustified emotions, and when they’re unjustified we go from sentiment (warm and fuzzy) to schmaltz (eye-rolling and false). I truly thought Crowe would know better than this.

Crowe has always been the defacto master of marrying music to film. Does anyone ever remember people singing Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer” before its virtuoso appearance in 2000’s Almost Famous? Crowe has a nimble ear but his penchant for emotional catharsis set to song gets the better of him with Elizabethtown. There’s just way too many musical montages (10? 15?) covering the emotional ground caused by the script’s massive shortcomings. By the time a montage is followed by another montage, you may start growing an unhealthy ire for acoustic guitar. Because there are so many unproductive musical numbers and montages, especially when we hit the last formless act, Elizabethtown feels like Crowe is shooting the soundtrack instead of a story.

Elizabethtown is an under-cooked, unfocused travelogue set to music. Crowe intends his personal venture to belt one from the heart, but like most personal ventures the significance can rarely translate to a third party. It’s too personal a film to leave any lasting power, like a friend narrating his vacation slide show. Elizabethtown is gestating with plot lines that it can’t devote time to, even time to merely show the progression of relationships. The overload of musical montages makes the movie feels like the longest most somber music video ever. Bloom’s limited acting isn’t doing anyone any favors either. In the end, it all rings too phony and becomes too meandering to be entertaining. Elizabethtown is a journey the film won’t even let you ride along for. This movie isn’t an outright fiasco but given Crowe’s remarkable track record it can’t help but be anything but a failure.

Nate’s Grade: C

The Longest Yard (2005)

Does anyone else remember an episode of South Park from the 2004 season where Eric Cartman dresses up as a robot named AWESOM-O? The best part of the episode came when Cartman stumbled into a Hollywood meeting and they asked the robot to pitch a movie idea. He came up with idea after idea of Adam Sandler in some wacky yet predictable situation, each a slight variation from the last. The Hollywood execs ate it up and scribbled everything down, chanting, “Goldmine!” I imagine The Longest Yard remake, the latest Sandler comedy vehicle, came about through similar creatively bankrupt circumstances.

Paul Crewe (Sandler) is at a low point in his life. The once star quarterback has been banned from football for throwing a game. His girlfriend (Courtney Cox) thinks they should split, and after being chased by police for drunk driving, he?s been sent to prison. The warden (James Cromwell, your go-to guy if you need someone old) has big plans for Crewe. He wants the young stud to organize an all-inmate football team to play against the cruel guards. Crewe gets help from a fellow inmate Caretaker (Chris Rock) and they set about finding the right men for their team. A former Heisman-winning football player (Burt Reynolds), who happens to be in the same prison, becomes the coach. Slowly but surely the group becomes a team united to get some revenge on their tormentors.

The Longest Yard is an Adam Sandler comedy in the worst way possible. The film is sloppy and sophomoric but generally unfunny. It sets its comedy heights on kicking people in the nuts and making fun of gay people. Mission accomplished. The sex jokes, while in abundance, generally fall flat because the movie is so ineptly transparent when it comes to comedy. It lets all the air out of the supposed punch lines. The humor is typically homophobic but infuriatingly also anti-women. You see, one of the guards is taking steroids in a bottle with a giant label that says, “Steroids?”(so much for keeping a low profile). The boys replace the steroids with -hee hee- estrogen pills. And in three days time, which would of course have no effect in such a short period, the guard is now crying, and overly emotional, and empathetic, and he has hot flashes, though I don’t know how in the world a man comes to that conclusion. Apparently it’s funny because women are weak and care about each other. I would be offended by this whole joke if it wasn’t so incompetently done. The Longest Yard exists in its own inept world where inmates have cells within arms reach of each other and there’s a prison football league. Lest we forget, this prison also keeps a star system to rank its inmates. Little did you know of Roger Ebert’s unorthodox side projects.

Sandler plays Adam Sandler as he does in most of his Hollywood flicks. He’s likable, he’s a goofball, and it all works out. I wonder if we’ll ever see the true thespian side of Sandler again, like in Paul Thomas Anderson?s deconstructionist Punch-Drunk Love. Rock’s abrasiveness is toned down but he also loses his comedic edge. He’s basically another stereotypical black character in a movie making tired jokes about the difference between black people and white people. Cromwell and Reynolds both appear to be having fun mucking it up with the youngins. The rest of the supporting cast have their moments but aren’t very memorable. The movie fills out the athletes by having real football players and wrestlers.

What’s worse is that The Longest Yard wants to also be taken as a serious movie. This causes some intensely jarring scenes intended for dramatic impact but they just stick out sorely and are misplaced. Every time the movie goes from kicking people in the nuts to dealing with something like racism or death, the movie flounders from the tonal whiplash. The original movie was more of a prison drama than a sports movie, let alone a comedy. The Sandler remake wants to be all three and isn’t good at any of them.

This movie is so formulaic that it could have been written on a string of napkins, likely only totaling three. The Longest Yard feels like 2005’s greatest example of a cut-and-paste studio approved movie. Of course the embattled hero will once again face his demons and his past. Of course the motley crew of idiots and convicts will come together for something greater than themselves. Of course the evil guards will all get their comeuppance in appropriate ways. I expected all this from the start, but where The Longest Yard goes terribly wrong is when even the details can be correctly guessed. I watched the film with a couple friends and we accurately guessed every character move, scene transition, character development, and sadly, every punch line. This is a film that spells everything out, including the jokes. Here’s an example of the film’s shortsighted thought process: the dastardly warden soaks the player’s field and makes it all muddy with the intention of demoralizing the team. What? These are prisoners, and you think mud is going to demoralize them? Don’t even get me started on how insane it is sending Burt Reynolds into the game as a running back. There’s more attention spent on the limp football scenes than the story or the comedy.

Another example of how weak the comedy is comes during the football game. It’s being telecast on ESPN and Chris Berman is providing the play-by-play. His sidekick in the booth is an inmate who doesn’t say anything. Berman even broaches this fact on air. Now, if The Longest Yard knew the facets of comedy, the natural payoff for this sequence would be for the silent inmate to say something at the very end, something funny or unexpected or even verbose. Instead, the film has the inmate talk two or three times and he adds no comedy. That’s The Longest Yard in a nutshell: all set-up and no return. And seriously, stop with the Rob Schneider cameos already.

The humor is a cocktail of physical slapstick and the occasional one-liner. There just isn’t anything satisfying to the comedy The Longest Yard has to offer. The jokes typically don’t build to anything greater and the humor is simply immediate with no lasting results. There’s nothing that will make you keel over with laughter, nothing that rises above a smirk or a slight giggle. The jokes are way too predictable and there’s nothing funny about the expected. That’s why most people don’t chuckle when the mail arrives. This just isn’t an entertaining comedy, plain and simple.

The Longest Yard is a tirelessly formulaic affair that is so ham-fisted with comedy it can’t even deliver jokes properly. This is a dumb, sanitized, audience-friendly easily digestible piece of puff that will get caught in your throat. This is a Franken-movie, with various parts crammed together for the best possible results by some studio overlord. The Longest Yard‘s comedy is sophomoric and generally insipid, the drama is a complete misstep and tonally out of place, and the football scenes are vapidly jazzed up. This is a sports move that doesn’t work as a comedy and a comedy that doesn’t work as a sports movie. Sandler’s devout army of fans will likely be satiated with this latest effort, feeling the flick to be stupid fun. For me, it was just stupid. Very stupid.

Nate’s Grade: D

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