New DVDs – REDBELT, RECOUNT, & BABY MAMA (for reals!)

Time to take a break from the big screen and review some new release DVDs – all with quick easy titles! So here goes it:

REDBELT (Dir. David Mamet, 2008)

A David Mamet Martial arts movie, well, how about that! Actually, since Mamets films usually offer double-talking con artists scoring a scam, the seedy world of strong armed prize-competitions is a perfect fit. Chiwetel Ejiofor, working his worry-lines particularly this one popping vein on his forehead, is a jujitsu master and self defense instructor who lives by a moral code and has perfected a new strategy. Which is, to determine the fight, Ejiofor explains with three marbles: Each fighter has a two-in-three odds of chosing a white marble. White marble’s a pass and that the black marble is a handicap meaning the fighter loses the use of his arms. He considers this his training method trademark despite its historical precedent and it is grifted from him by the business that is show – a movie star (a gruff thick Tim Allen) and his film production cronies and a big league televised championship. Other pressures mount with his nagging wife (Alice Braca) bitchin bout huge debts, a frazzled lawyer (Emily Mortimer) who accidentely shoots out the window of Ejiofors studio with a cops gun, a hot wrist-watch that competes with the marble method to be the films meta-MacGuffin. There is always an escape” Ejiofor often states though it gets so dicey you doubt whether he believes it.

Mamets trusty regulars Joe Montegna, Ricky Jay (stiffer than usual but still effective), and Rebecca Pidgeon (Mamets wife) all do their wicked best with the barbed wordings while curiously crafted fight choreography marks the set pieces. Along with the surpisingly deft Tim Allen (atoning for WILD HOGS I hope) the always affable David Paymer has a brief bit as a loan shark and look for Jennifer Grey (DIRTY DANCING) in a nothing part as Montegnas lady-friend. Ejiofor is the one to watch though; he carries every scene with a gravitas only hinted at in previous works like DIRTY PRETTY THINGS and AMERICAN GANGSTER. His sparring both with his fellow thespians in tense talks and in the ring is engrossing. REDBELT isnt Mamets best film (thats GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS IMHO) but it is meticulous and gloriously manipulative in many pleasurable ways. It’s a thinking mans Martial arts movie that, for all the abrasiveness of its characters plans, has a careful respectful grace that so much modern drama is missing.

RECOUNT (Dir. Jay Roach, 2008)

Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. And then theres that little known third category.
– Al Gore

This HBO telefilm tells an all too familliar tale – the maddening election result fiasco that was the Bush/Gore Presidential campaign of 2000. No need to worry about any Spoilers here – everyone knows how this turned out but what makes this compelling and essential is the devil in the details. A solid cast staffs both sides of the debate – Kevin Spacey, Dennis Leary, and Ed Begley Jr. in the Democratic corner facing off Tom Wilkinson, Bob Babalan, and Bruce McGill as the rebuking Republicans. Laura Dern as Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris is the icing on an already very tast cake. As Warren Christopher, John Hurt makes a much more striking note (described by Leary as “so tight he probably eats his M&Ms with a knife and fork”) than he did in the whole of that last Indiana Jones flick.

The real star here is the story though – biased towards the Democrats as one would figure and fudging with some minor facts aside, the topsy turvy twists of the road to the White House turned me inside-out with some of the same feelings I had when the real thing was happening getting stirred up. I got so into the frustrating back and forth that I thought it was again possible for Gore to win only to have to take a big bite of a stale reality sandwich. Sigh.

Except for archival footage and some over the shoulder shots we never see Gore or Bush, we just hear their voices on phones or see doubles at a distance and this was a good decision. The meat of the matter was those toiling beneath them epitomized by Spacey’s part as Gore’s former Chief Of Staff. Klain was actually fired from his position but still came to work on the campaign and then the recount commitee. Spacey brings his usual slick glide to the role which can be annoying in films like BEYOND THE SEA (actually everything was annoying in that movie) and THE LIFE OF DAVID GALE (ditto) but it works wonders with such lines as “the plural of ‘chad’ is ‘chad’?” Leary pretty much hammers down his standard schtick but his jaded cynical demeanor is definitely necessary considering.

Like many I’ve never really gotten over the 2000 election. It was one of the most disappointing and devastating events of my lifetime. That a lot of the mitigating factors haven’t completely been resolved is very troubling in light of the upcoming election. There’s a lot to recommend about RECOUNT but the most vital message it contains can be summed up by the words of poet George Santayana: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”. While I don’t think we’ll ever forget this story, I still fear it may be repeated.

(Dir. Michael McCullers, 2008)

Former SNL head writer and currently the star of 30 Rock (which she also created and writes) Tina Fey never appeared to aspire to motion picture leading lady status. My role model is Harold Ramis she told Time Magazine in an interview when promoting MEAN GIRLS. She went on: I want to sneak into movies. I have no pretensions of thinking people will pay to see me. Well, this was #1 at the box office its opening weekend (I know that doesn’t necessarily mean hit – i.e. BANGKOK DANGEROUS) so plenty did pay to see her but I didnt. Mainly because the lame looking clips on the commercials – I mean, did anyone bits like Fey getting mad at Amy Poehler for sticking gum under her prized coffee table were that funny? Well, nothing here is that funny. This is light comedy – a rom com that was marketed as a crude offensive Farrelly brothers type affair.

Fey is a 37 year old career woman who one day wakes up and wants a baby. She is told by a doctor (John Hodgman – the PC guy from those get a Mac ads) that the chances of her getting pregnant are one in a million so she looks into adoption but is discouraged by the long waiting list. The idea of employing a surrogate mother pulls her in and before long she is set up with Amy Poehler as a white trash loon. Poehler and Fey have worked together a lot so they have a great clashing chemistry but the tone here is too comfortable to really take off. It does contain a good cast with appearances by SNL folk (Will Forte, Fred Armisen, Siobhan Fallon), a mildly amusing performance by Steve Martin as Fey’s pony-tailed new agey boss, Sigourney Weaver being a good sport about aging jokes as the surrogacy firm head who boasts about conceiving naturally, and Greg Kinnear as a smarmy but charming possible love interest for Fey.

The problem is that it’s all too light and trivial. Poehler could have really gone somewhere with her crusty character, there are hints of that when she’s going into labor and freaking out in a hospital hallway: It feels like Im shitting a knife! but director/writer McCullers (also a former SNL alumni) seems to have decided to play one tone and never vere far from its self imposed sentiment. Still, Fey and Poehler have their moments and its nice to see a quasi-smart comedy involving the needs of women protagonists thats not trying to fake sincerity. Its small success will, with hope, give them the chance to try for something that has more teeth and will really leave more of a mark than this.

More later…

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