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Red Letters (2000)
The humor is intentional, folks!
Like many other respondents, I ran across this genially goofy mystery while surfing and didn't expect to stick with it more than a few minutes. But it grabbed me from the beginning and held up almost to the end. Thanks to the person who noted that the film was shot in 21 days on a shoestring. That accounts for the gaps in the plot (like certain scenes that we expect to see but were probably never filmed). But the shoestring production makes the acting, the comic touches, and the overall unpredictability of the plot all the more impressive. The screenplay found some really ingenious things to do with these likable characters.
It wouldn't work without excellent performances. The director strikes me as someone who really works well with actors. Coyote gives a really fine comic performance, showing more emotional range than he's usually allowed to. Balk, Piven, and Kinski are also very good. Ernie Hudson, who has played this cop role a dozen times, is a treat in the knowing and yet not smug notes he hits. You get the feeling he's seen it all, knows exactly where it's going, and will just let it get there before he steps in to mop things up.
The film struck me as primarily a comedy (which is pretty much given away near the end by the little alligator in Pauly Shore's backyard wading pool)--but I'm surprised more respondents haven't noticed this. It had me consistently chuckling throughout.
I guess I'm a sucker for these offbeat little films that you don't expect much from. But in the last few months, I've left the local multiplex shaking my head in disbelief that good filmmakers could make "big" thrillers as bad as Twisted and Taking Lives. Red Letters is a heck of a lot more fun to watch, and deserves more exposure.
Happy Accidents (2000)
WOW!!!!!!!! A third brilliant Anderson! (NO SPOILERS, just a plug!
I had heard good things about this film, had liked Session 9 a lot, and will watch anything with d'Onofrio. Even so, this film completely blew me away.
It's science-fiction for adults, who prefer ideas and emotions to explosions and goofy makeup.
It's romantic dramedy at its best, with two memorable characters portrayed by highly skilled and REAL actors. In fact both Tomei and d'Onofrio are close to perfect in these roles.
It's a premise that continues to develop over the entire span of the film, never becoming predictable or plot-driven.
It offers striking supporting performances from Holland Taylor and Jose Zuniga, and a flat-out GREAT scene with Tovah Feldshuh that's driven by subtle and moving screenwriting.
It offers memorable and witty cameos from Mike McGlone and Anthony ("just call me Michael") Hall. And you gotta love the conceit of a guy who fantasizes about being A.M. Hall during sex!
From the opening shot to the end, it offers countless felicities of mise-en-scene, camera movement, framing, and editing, courtesy of Brad Anderson.
And there's a final shot that manages to be both very subtle and emotionally complex, while still seeming completely inevitable.
I even liked the loose ends that were never wrapped up!
SEE THIS FILM!
Interesting experiment to play exorcism as a social satire
This film seems to inspire wildly varying responses. The only respondent who comes close to my response was the one who asked if it was supposed to be a goof. EXACTLY! Yet this writer still didn't like it very well.
I thought POSSESSED was hilariously funny in places (the "Union forever" shot that riffs on Citizen Kane was probably my favorite). Robbie's wisecracks were also often quite funny, as well as the satiric presentation of his penny-pinching TV-zombie father, and the hapless clergyman who tries to use Robbie to make a name in the world of parapsychology. The humor is consistent but VERY dry, so that a casual viewer not expecting this from a "possession" film might miss it altogether.
Yet despite the humor, the film did maintain an effectively creepy atmosphere, and it had something to say about the Cold-War Fifties. To me it was an impressive balancing act with fine acting from Dalton and Czerny, clever script, and nice directorial touches.
Mixing humor and terror goes back to Hitchcock, of course, but very few filmmakers can carry off effectively. M. Night Shyamalan is the current master of it, and POSSESSED isn't in his class. But it's definitely worth checking out!
Clinic in comic technique
This light-as-a-feather comedy-mystery has developed a strong following, and it's easy to see why. Despite the pedestrian and predictable mysteries that frame the episodes, the scripts are fresh and ingenious on a moment-to-moment basis. The writers have built enough flexibility into Monk's quirks that they can be used as a giant bag of comic tricks. And they have a knack for contriving (meant in both senses) situations that take full advantage of Tony Shalhoub's comic talent.
Shalhoub is breathtakingly funny, aided well by Bitty Schram and Ted Levine. He has amazing technique and timing in both the comedy of physical movement and gesture, and the comedy of verbal nuance. He often reminds me of Chaplin, which is about the highest praise I can think of. Yet he's not imitating Chaplin-- in Monk he's created a highly distinctive and instantly recognizable comic character (who also possesses a substantial tragic dimension, again like Chaplin).
The episode where Monk is called upon to act in a play is perhaps the best example of his equal command of body and voice. Shalhoub's shifts between twitchy offstage Monk and wooden onstage Monk are truly hilarious, the kind of footage you could find unable to delete from your TiVo because you want to see it just one more time.... Along with Kevin Kline, Shalhoub is surely the finest contemporary American actor of comedy.
MONK is a slight pleasure and may eventually outstay its welcome after a few more seasons. But if there's any justice, it will put Shalhoub into the front ranks of comic performers for many years to come.
Idle Hands (1999)
Idle Hands may be a very guilty pleasure, but it's hilarious from start to finish. I have to echo other comments about Devon Sawa's performance, which is really outstanding as physical comedy goes.
My vote for best exchange of lines in recent American filmmaking:
Anton: "I got in a fight with my cat."
Molly: "He sure kicked your a**."
Anton (defensively): "I did OK."
The Pledge (2001)
Give the big guy a break! (SPOILER!)
Responding to the false spoilers sprinkled throughout these comments:
Why in the world do people think Tom Noonan's character Gary Jackson is the murderer? This is a complete red herring. Jerry (Nicholson) comes to believe he is the killer, and in one of the more manipulative scenes, rushes to a church where he fears that Jackson has abducted and killed the girl. Penn's decision to portray Jerry's fear in a fantasy shot of Jackson covered in blood is artistically questionable, in my view. But he clearly goes on to reveal that what's happening in the church is in fact a religious ceremony: when Jerry bursts in, Jackson earnestly welcomes him in to the service. Jackson is not a crazed killer, just a very religious guy hoping to interest anyone he can in joining the congregation.
As for the "real killer," who dies in the car accident on his way to the trap Jerry has set for him, we never clearly see his face. But there's no reason whatsoever to assume it's Jackson. It's the guy who works as a clown.
Seems to me some people need to watch these films a little more carefully, and not assume that because a guy is best known for playing a mad killer (Manhunter), that he is going to be the killer in every film he appears in.