Friday, November 30, 2007

You Kill Me, Southland Tales & Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium

You Kill Me
Every once in a while a movie comes along in which the filmmakers know exactly what they’re doing, which is precisely how I felt within the first few moments of You Kill Me, a razor-sharp comedy directed by John Dahl from a script by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, starring Ben Kingsley as an alcoholic hitman, Frank. When Frank falls asleep on the job and the target gets away, Roman, his Mafioso brother (Philip Baker Hall), orders him to join the AA and clean up his act. The rest of the plot (involving Dennis Farina as a rival mob boss muscling in on Roman’s turf) is at best functional, but with a premise like this—hit-man forced to quit drinking so he can carry on killing—who cares? The casting of Kingsley as Frank is inspired, and Dahl returns to form as a director, his last film of note being Rounders, back in 1998. The film delivers on its giddy promise pretty much all the way, and unlike most other nihilistic-comedies-about-lovable-hitmen, there’s nothing mean-spirited about it. It doesn’t glorify Frank’s work, but it never holds it against him either. It’s dark, but it has heart.

Since playing Gandhi in 1982, Kingsley has steadily evolved from an accomplished, rather dull actor into a sneaky, playful presence; he seems especially at home playing heavies, and Frank may be his best role to date. Tea Leoni, Bill Pullman, Luke Wilson, and Marcus Thomas all bring a special flourish to their work, and make up a motley bunch of endearing, slightly off-the-wall characters (the exceptions are Farina and Hall, who have played these roles too many times before). The film rather fizzles out towards the end—it badly needs an ingenious twist or action sequence to round it off—but for most of its length it’s a real gem: diamond hard and razor-sharp. Frank takes pride in being good at his job, but he has a conscience. He doesn’t regret killing people, just the kills that weren’t “clean.” The film is gleefully morbid. It’s death-affirming.

Southland Tales
Richard Kelly’s long-awaited follow-up to 2001’s Donnie Darko arrives on a wave of bad press after its 2006 screening at Cannes, and alas, reports were not exaggerated. Southland Tales is painfully sophomoric and entirely devoid of the wit, intelligence and pathos that made Donnie Darko such a unique experience. Aspiring to be a sci-fi epic, the film was shot on a tiny budget in only thirty days, and the film looks (and sounds) like an “avant-garde” American TV show, with performances (a bland cast lead by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Sarah Michelle Geller) on about the same level. Everything about Southland Tales is horribly botched; it even manages to make Miranda Richardson look like a bad actress, a major feat in itself.

Whatever Kelly’s vision was, it was hopelessly scrambled on the way to the screen. What’s left is an undisciplined mishmash of ill-conceived, poorly executed scenes going nowhere and a lot of slapstick violence and smug, “surrealist” jokes reminiscent of David Lynch on a bad day. Kelly is insanely ambitious and he throws just about everything into the mix—Biblical prophecies, teenage porn, corporate conspiracies, rigged elections, time travel, world war three—everything except believable characters, engaging dialogue, or a plot that makes any sense. When Kelly’s not aping Lynch he’s coat-tailing Kubrick (he makes his inspirations plain with the soundtrack, probably the most enjoyable thing in the film), but he has sacrificed his own sensibility on the altar of his movie idols. In the process of realizing his grandiose satiric-apocalyptic vision of “Life on Earth,” he short-circuited his talent. Without narrative framework or coherent vision, Southland Tales is all sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium
Written and directed by Zach Helm (who wrote last year’s underrated Stranger Than Fiction), Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium tells the tale of a 243-year-old toy shop proprietor (Dustin Hoffman) and his faithful store manager Molly (Natalie Portman). When Magorium decides his time to depart has come, he chooses Molly as his heir, but Molly doubts her ability to fill her mentor’s magical shoes. Helm is aiming for a kind of archetypal fairy tale complete with Tim Burton-style carnival antics, but nothing seems to come naturally to him. He’s straining for effects and the strings are showing, and most of the time he relies on a soaring orchestral score do his work for him. The music lets us know when we’re supposed to be moved, and audiences may go along with the film simply because it works so hard at being liked. But besides the irresistible high of seeing Natalie Portman finding her witchcraft, nothing has much resonance here. It’s all bright surfaces with nothing behind them. Where Stranger Than Fiction achieved a magical realism, combining a sharp psychological edge with Capra-esque sweetness, Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium is all sweetness and no edge. It’s cotton candy, and without nuances or depth, the result is as flat and inconsequential as a cartoon show. We might at least have hoped for an inventive star turn from Hoffman, but he comes off as a mincing, cloying presence. The whole film is cloying, in fact. Magic that isn’t anchored in reality is just confetti to distract from the fact that nothing is really going on. The film is kid’s stuff, a likeable trifle. Considering the talent involved, it’s a major disappointment.

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