Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Redbox: A Rah-Rah Rave-up

Ridin' Out the Recession with Redbox Rentals

I choose. I rent. I enjoy.

OK, maybe the selection is extremely limited and overly populist (lotsa Disney, teen comedies and dumbass action movies) and the target audience is more likely to go to the mall cineplex than Cinema Sundays at the Charles Theatre, but I've seen some good movies on the cheap thanks to the Redbox DVD dispenser at my local Giant Food store. Though management has unfortunately located the movie vending machine right between the store entrance and the checkout lines - so I have to constantly watch my back lest I get jabbed in the back by a shopping cart - I really can't argue with the price of $1 a night, and it's enabled me to catch up on a lot of well-buzzed movies I missed at the theatres. So herein are some reviews of my Red Box scores to date.

I'll Buy That for a Dollar!

1. Michael Clayton (2007) *** 1/2
The first Redbox I ever "vended" - my girlfriend Amy loves this techno newspeak term. Whenever you're waiting for the DVD to pop out of the Redbox, the machine says "Your DVD is being vended." I had never been vended before; I didn't mind it. Amy said it reminded her of a girl at work who used the term "conversating." Amy told her that people either "converse" or have a "conversation" but that she, as a college English major, had never come across the term "conversate" or "conversating." Oh well, get used to it. All the old linguistic rules are archaic these days. Oh, and as for the movie, it was a really good George Clooney movie with great ensemble acting courtsey of Tilda Swinson and Syndey Pollack about corrupt multinational corporations (almost a redundant term these days) and the corrupt law firms that carry their water. With a twist ending. Well worth a dollar!

2. Before the Devil Knows You're Dead (2007) ****
With a title taken from an Irish toast ("May you have food and raiment, a soft pillow for your head; may you be 40 years in heaven, before the devil knows you're dead"), this one got a number of plaudits from regional and international critics (winning the AFI, Boston Society of Film Critics and Los Angeles Film Critics Association awards) but somehow got snubbed by the Oscars. And Philip Seymore Hoffman's outstanding performance got passed over as well - maybe because he was too damned good that year, also appearing in Charlie Wilson's War (for which he received a Best Supporting Actor Oscar) and The Savages (for which he received the Independent Spirit Award for Best Male Lead).

3. Wall-E
(2008) ***
Redbox was made for this, the very definition of a title to be vended from a machine for the masses. Not that it's not good, but I don't really like that whole Pixar style of animation (I like laborious Old School cel animation myself) and I don't wanna fill the coffers of the Disney-Pixar Empire conglomerate with more than $1 to boot.

4. Frozen River *****
What a surprise to find this - the polar opposite of a big studio production like Wall-E - in a Redbox! Frozen River is what indie's all about...real stories about real people with real issues (the flailing economy, unemployment, single moms, broken homes, human trafficking, immigration, racial bias). And no one is very attractive, like most people we know in life outside the make believe realm of Hollywood make-up jobs, Photoshopped tabloid stars, and airbrushed magazine models.

5. Religulous ***
Though I don't particularly like Bill Maher (maybe because some people claim I look like him), I tend to agree with most of his positions. Like this rant against organized religion, specifically The Big Three (Catholicism, Judaism and Islam), with hilarious WTF/We're-Not-Making-This-Shit-Up literal deconstructions of the basic tenets of Scientology and Mormonism. Maher is his usual smug and snarky self, but you can't argue with his logic. He points out, like his spiritual no-bullshit cousin Bill Hicks, the hypocrisy of it all. I especially liked his deconstruction of suicide bombers and dictators like Hitler as guys who became societal buzz-kills because they couldn't get laid. I wonder if anyone's done any studies, as Maher suggests they should, to see how many of these guys and gals were actually getting any before they opted to kill and be killed.

6. Rachel Getting Married ** 1/2
Another movie I missed at the theatres that I was given a second chance on thanks to the Giant Food Redbox. I had heard mixed reviews about it, but $1 seemed well worth the risk and I was pleasantly surprised. I didn't totally love it (see my reservations here) but I found it an entertaining way to spend two hours. I really enjoyed the ensemble acting, highlighted by Rosemarie DeWitt, Bill Irwin and the very comely Anne Hathaway (I love her dark gamine look, though there's a barrista at the Starbucks down the street who's better looking by far.)

7. Quantum of Solace *** 1/2
I purposely avoided the mad rush to the cineplex to see the latest "new Bond" movie, but I'm here to say I would have paid full price for this. The plot is ludicrous (somehow an evil plot to create a drought in Bolivia pales against previous Bond exploits like saving the world from nuclear annihilation) and the sexpot subplot (Olga Kurylenko as "Camille" and Gemma Arterton as "Strawberry Fields") was totally unnecessary (though probably true to the Ian Fleming text), but does anyone watch Bond films for the narrative? (Apparently Paul Haggis co-wrote the script, but there's certainly nothing here on par with his script for Crash - or much to brag about, for that matter; this is strictly a pay the bills job for Haggis). This was a great action film. I like Daniel Craig as the Blonde Bond incarnation and I really like this director Marc Forster (who's stringing together a rather impressive CV: The Kite Runner, Stranger Than Fiction, Stay, Finding Neverland, Monster's Ball) - his imaginative, fast-paced jump-cut editing made this 106-minute feature fly by with blink-and-you-miss-it excitement. This was intentional; according to Wikipedia, Forster found Casino Royale's 144 minute running time too long, and wanted his follow-up to be, quote, "tight and a bullet." Mission accomplished. And I can't think of a better French male actor these days than Mathieu Almeric (Une Conte de Noel, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Munich), who played the villain Dominic Greene - though the whole time I was watching him I couldn't help remarking at his uncanny resemblance to Baltimore's legendary DJ and Defective Records/Glitch maestro Bump Stadelman.

Mathieu (l) and Bump (r)

Lina Wertmuller's veteran sad-eyed lead Giancarlo Giannini gets thrown a bone in a cameo as Rene Mathis, which was a nice touch but, again, detracted from the flow of this film about fluids - or lack of.

8. Elegy ****
Another great $1 score. Based on Philip Roth's novel Dying Animal, it tells the story of 60-something Dirty Old Man David Kepesh (Sir Ben Kingsley), an erudite college literature professor/culture vulture (music, opera, theatre, etc.) who preys on nubile grad students, enjoying the sexual freedom he missed out on when he was married in the Free Love/Sex Lib '60s. But he meets his match in Consuela (Penelope Cruz in a role that's polar opposite her wild, out-of-control character in Vicky Christina Barcelona), a muy caliente 20-something Cuban-American student. After he seduces her with his well-tested charms, he gets possessive and jealous and lo, what was for him a diversion suddenly becomes a relationship. Of course, being middle aged, he gets philosophic and existential about where it's all heading, and blows it. Patricia Clarkson is along for the ride as his longtime female friend-with-benefits (she's a career-minded entrepreneur who schedules intimate encounters with Kepesh like business appointments in her Dayrunner, in between flights around the world) - and reality check ("I'm one in a million," she tells him at one point. "I actually get you...and you get straight fucking, no strings attached.") (Of course, she gets jealous too. The Human Comedy of relationships being what it is). The title is apt, as this is more a film about death and loss than merely a love story. Life is just beginning for Consuela (or is it?), while the metronome that sits atop Kepesh's piano continues to remind him of time's passage - the clock is running down on this confirmed bachelor. It's also an elegy for Kepesh's lost relationship with his estranged son (Peter Sarsgaard), the result of that mistake (marriage) Kepesh made in the 60s. Cruz is fantastic and committed to the role; there's a lot of full-frontal nudity on display here (believe it or not, it contributes to the plotline! hey, the director's a woman!); for his part, Sir Ben sucks in the midriff and looks relatively buff in his topless scenes - kudos to both actors for having the gravitas to make these intimate scenes work and not look gratuitous, cheap or cheesy. The tables turn as Kepesh resorts to fibbing like a schoolboy while Consuela acts like the mature adult when she asks the three questions all non-commital males dread: What do you want? [Besides the sex.] Where are we heading? Do you see a future with me? Peter Sarsgaard and Dennis Hopper are good in supporting roles, though I couldn't separate Hopper's character (Kepesh's fellow womanizing contemporary George O'Hearn) from his TV commercial role as retirement investment pitchman for Ameriprise Financial (I half expected him to tell Kepesh that "Dreams don't retire when you do"!). Overall, a pretty honest and adult film (in the truest sense of that term) with no easy answers or resolutions. As a middle-aged man who has experienced many of the self-soubting questions Kepesh asks, I found it both troubling and all too familiar. But you take the good with the hurt. And try to move on.


Of course, the sad part of Redbox is that a whole post-digital generation will grow up associating the term "Redbox" with a DVD vending machine (or perhaps with a phone "phreaking" device) and not the iconic British telephone box or kiosk (or what we ignorant Yanks call a "phone booth"!) from whence it took its name. Every bit as synonymous with The British Empire as the Union Jack, double decker buses, bobbies and Buckingham Palace's Royal Guardsmen, the red telephone box designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott has seen its numbers reduced radically in the Cellular Century (or "Mobile Millenium" as Brits would no doubt call it). So, lest we forget what phone booths were - and as a nod to my Anglophile girlfriend who still gets a thrill anytime she spots an archaic phone booth, much less a British one - here's a "red box" for the photo archives:

Big Red is not yet dead


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