Monday, March 29, 2004

Killing a Lady

When you get a chance to see two movies and see a preview for a third by your favorite directors, it's a trifecta weekend. Saw the Coen Bros.' The Ladykillers on Saturday and then Kevin Smith's Jersey Girl on Sunday, where a preview for Jim Jarmusch's Coffee and Cigarettes was also shown. Reviews that I'd read of the first two movies ran the gamut of tepid to lukewarm, so the exuberance factor and the anticipation of wicked wordplay that is usually there when I go to see a Coen or Smith work were both dialed down. Yep, I let the critics' words set up the first facial movements pointing down the slope to disappointment.

When the news came out that Smith would be doing a REAL NJ flick, memories of the Jersey beauty(yeah..there's a lot of it, contrary to poop-ular opinion) of my youth came up. To make things even more interesting, a good friend, Charlie Gilbert was going to be in the movie, both in front of and in back of the camera.




was on the corner of softer emotions and wise ass streets with this, his latest world view. His dad had died in 2003 and the heaviness of that event was evident throughout the movie. There was a herky-jerky pull on your emotional compass throughout the movie. I laugh. I cry. I laugh & cry. There were an escalating series of sniffling guffaws in the movie theater as the film moved along.
George Carlin , as Ben Affleck's dad, was a revelation. While the center of the movie was Affleck's daughter, the Jersey Girl, it was Carlin who gave a controlled and complete performance that tied the picture together. As is usual for a Kevin Smith flick, the film editing of the movie (done by Kevin Smith and his long time friend and cohort, Scott Mosier) was choppy and somewhat disconnected. There were scenes where Affleck was very effective and others where...where...where?...oh where was he?, because he wasn't there acting. Was it more the film editing than the thespian "skills" of Ben Affleck that were the cause of Affleck's effectiveness? I can only picture the cinematographer, the famous Vilmos Zsigmond, giving, in a lowered voice, Slavic "blessings" as to the use of his movie shots. But...that is a Kevin Smith trademark, choppy and chippy, so why let a large scale movie budget ruin the effect?

The movie starts with the quick exit of Jeninifer Lopez, as Gerturde Steiney, as she moves (as a character) from the girlfriend, to the fiance, to the wife, to the daughter-in-law, and then to the mother of Gertie(a.k.a. The Jersey Girl). ...and THEN to the DEAD Wife/Mother/Daughter-in-law. Yipes! You realize this isn't your usual Kevin Smith moment. One of the main characters died early on in his movie and there were no jokes or comedy routines. He's gone over the top in seriousness....dude. And you know that she'll stay dead because Lt. Van Buren (S. Ephata Merkerson) from Law & Order is on the job, as her doctor. Lt. Van Buren is always right, in that motherly way, so you know JLo won't be coming back as a spirit or a nagging comparison to Liv Tyler. Ten minutes into the movie and poor Ben has to carry the movie the rest of the way...not encouraging.
Luckily (as mentioned previously), Mr. Carlin is around and Gertie grows from 1 month to 7 years in about 15 minutes, with stops along the way in the NYC Hard Rock Cafe, where she stops for a #1 and a baby powder bath (mothers in the audience were heard calling their lawyers on their cell phones, asking if they could sue Ollie( Mr. Affleck) for cruelty to children), a late night plea of love by Ollie at her crib (Hey!! How come he didn't pull up the safety bar after he finished talking), and various random acts of grandfatherly love, as only Mr. Carlin could bestow. Gertie is quickly rushed through to speaking age, to assist in Ollie's internal tug-of-war between being a loving responsible dad and a cretinous publicist. Why this tug-of-war persists for as long as it does, when he's got such an adorable daughter and Maya (Liv Tyler), his love interest, who is ready to dispense with "mercy jumps" stretches one's patience and credulity to the max. Too bad that Mr. Carlin hadn't picked up a 2 x 4 that was handy in the comfy but ramshackle house that he, Gertie, & Ollie lived in and jolted some suburban NJ reality into Ollie's thick, but nicely coifed, head (If Mr. Carlin had sneaked a peek at The Ladykillers, he would have realized that a hit upside Ollie's head is just what was in order). But...all is forgiven. Kevin Smith had a hell of a bad year (2003) and the (hopefully) temporary departure from his scathing views can be understood. In the roily seas of Kevin Smith's personal troubles, any port in a storm will do. Jersey Girl seemed as fine a port as any for him to dock his sadness. Perhaps, we'll next see the bookend movie, Jersey Goy..a story of a nice Catholic man meets a nice Jewish girl..and her mom...Guy meets Oy! (a colloboration with Jon Stewart). Music by John Gorka, Patti Smith, and the "Fountains of Wayne"....Oh, hell, throw in "They Might be Giants" and Nellie McKay and even Loudon Wainwright III (even though the last three are all NY-ers not NJ-ites) to ramp up the sarcasm.

With The Ladykillers, the death of another lady becomes a concern at the tail end of things rather than at the beginning, as in Jersey Girl. Tears are not to be shed during this film, unless one considers the possibilities or the story alternatives missed. When Blood Simple, Raising Arizona, Fargo, Miller's Crossing, and Oh Brother, Where Arth Thou? are in your lineage, expectations of ingenuity co-mixed with humor are always there. Falling short of the high standards they've set for themselves makes it difficult to leave a
dark and bearded Coen Bros. movie cringing with displeasure. You may not be crazy about the results, but you still admire their efforts. These guys usually put you through a jaw dropping script of twists and cut-back turns, while you're simultaneously rolling in the aisles with side-splitting laughter. Humor & intrigue, what a delightful mix.

Unfortunately, that mix was diluted with The Ladykillers. If you were familiar with or had seen the original (And if you haven't...queue this one up on your Netflix list) "The Ladykillers, with Alec Guiness, Peter Sellers, and Herbert Lom, you knew how the film would end. The question was, how were the Coens going to change or evolve their version of the same story. Tom Hanks, as Prof. G.H. Dorr, gives a valiant effort and seems to be thoroughly enjoying himself in the role that Alec Guiness created. Hanks' is a different spin and certainly a different set of monologues, so it was a welcome departure from the original. Irma P. Hall, as Marva Munson, shines in her role as the widow who lets a room to Hanks; she wipes out the memory of the old lady in the original version. Other pleasant cast members include the comedian George Wallace as Sherriff Wyner and Stephen Root as Fernand Gudge (as usual, the names in a Coen film are always delicacies of pronunciation, very similar to the names that W.C. Fields concocted in his flicks). Unfortunately, with the exception of Mr. Hanks, the other actors mentioned aren't in the film long enough to wipe out the misery foisted on the audience by the other members in Prof. Dorr's gang. If it were possible, rising of the dead would have been in order. Herbert Lom & Peter Sellers alone outshone the combined 4 other Prof. Dorr gang members.
As with most Coen films, language is very important, especially the slang, accent, and method of speaking. Dorr's and Mrs. Munson's conversations were always interesting. The gang's? Grating, at best. Negating the film viewing, at worst. You all are acquainted with at least one person who can curse up a storm in their daily conversation and can carry it off without insulting you. As Jean Shephard put it (when talking about his father), cursing was his metier, he formed equisite sculptures of four letter words. For me that was my friend Mike. Unfortunately, neither Mike nor the friend that you know who is an artiste in vulgarity were cast in this film. Instead, there were 2 mutes and 2 fellows whose mouths Mrs. Munson should have scrubbed out with lye soap. Not only were their conversations a drag on the movie, they were just plain cacaphonous. Even T Bone Burnett's excellent soundtrack couldn't drown out the poor utilization of language.

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