Monday, December 03, 2007

Noir Noel

So, on with my holiday movie picks. Today, in the spirit of discount shopping, I've got twotwo for the price of one!

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang

At first glance, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang has all the right ornaments to make it a classic Christmas tree of film noir. Hard boiled private eyes, an LA setting, a femme fatale, and a grisly murder mystery are all lined up and ready to be arranged in formulaic manner. But first time director (though seasoned screenwriter) Shane Black takes Brett Halliday's gift-inside-a-gift novel and re-strings the garland to create the brightest comedy-noir in recent years.

Robert Downey Jr. is the lead as the marvelously named Harry Lockhart, a petty thief who stumbles onto an acting audition while fleeing the cops. Next thing he knows, he's being sent to LA to audition for the role. While there, he bungles his way into meeting up with his childhood sweetheart, Harmony (Michelle Monaghan), who in turn helps him get embroiled in a convoluted murder investigation along with Val Kilmer's PI, Gay Perry.

The only thing quicker than the pacing of this film is the humor. The laughs are fast and frequent, and often sharp and pointed, and much of it is merriment-in-dialogue between Harry and Perry. One of the clever tweaks on the formula is that Kilmer's Perry is gay, and yet he plays the straight man to Downey's Harry. The chemistry between these two is off the charts, making this almost more of a buddy movie than a noir. Then, toss in the magnificent Michelle Monaghan's performance which isn't the least bit coy, and you've suddenly got a third buddy and romantic twist.

The Christmas setting is barely a blip on the radar of this film, though there are plenty of shots of Michelle decked out as a sexy Santa's helper, and she's the perfect mix of jaded Los Angeles ho ho ho and small town innocent. But there's also a refreshing lack of turkeys and tinsel. The real present here is Robert Downey Jr.'s performance, where he proves once again exactly why he's worth the worry to cast in films. He may have destroyed his chances of ever becoming one of our most celebrated movie stars, but he is still one of our most talented actors. The rapid-fire material of this movie often hinges upon his delivery, and he inhabits the role so perfectly that he tosses off the comedy with a cavalier lightness, swinging deftly from witty to silly, and just as easily pulls the weight with a dash of tragic gravitas.

With all the crazy plot turns and fresh takes, this movie ends up being like one of those fad-stylish inverted Christmas trees. Except, like, those trees are mostly ugly and lame, and will probably be passe before long. But this movie is already a smart and stylish screwball classic.

The Ice Harvest

And so comes the second of three of my holiday movie picks to be heavy with the presence of Billy Bob Thornton. Oh, you know what the third, yet-to-be-named movie is, and you knew I'd love that movie. But we'll get to that masterpiece in another post. In this flick, Billy Bob plays the menacing Vic, a partner-in-crime of Cusack's everyman Charlie Arglist. Together, on Christmas Eve, Vic and Charlie have just ripped off a mob man, who's also Charlie's boss, for over a million bucks.

There's a dame along the way. There are other mobsters looking for Charlie. There's a politician with a past. There's a buffoon of a best friend. In other words, plenty of twists, but it's essentially an easy set-up with high stakes: Last man standing will take the dough.

What's most unexpected about this flick isn't the extremely dark humor, it's how pointed and fitting to the spirit of our modern Christmas the humor is. I really can't say that this movie will suit a lot of people's tastes, as it subtly yet savagely attacks what we hold so dear about the season -- greed. It's not exactly spoken, but it's misted into the subtext as heavily as the icy rain falls through the streets as Charlie attempts to navigate his get away.

Now look. I don't give a fuck how crazy Billy Bob is. No one does sexy sleaze the way he does. Directed by Harold Ramis, I expected this movie to have a lot more lighthearted laughs and to play the villains as grey entities. Instead, Billy Bob's Vic walks the line and then eventually catapults over it into a truly disturbing, blackhearted bastard. Meanwhile, it's the desperation of Cusak's long-suffering, existential Charlie that somehow buoys our faith. Oliver Platt has made a career out of being a scene stealer, and his turn as Charlie's best friend, who's also married to Charlie's ex-wife, is no exception. He's drunk and just as desperate as Charlie, but his shenanigans are the spare dusting of glitter that make this movie shimmer and keep it from being treacherously nasty.

I was unfamiliar with Connie Neilsen before this movie, and she's nearly iconic in her turn as the monkey-wrench dame. Both in looks and attitude, she's pulled straight out of old-Hollywood noirs, giving a dangerous performance I haven't seen since Kathleen Turner in Body Heat.

Though deadly and cynical, this movie isn't a wholly "serious" exercise. It is a comedy, black and dark and seemingly cold though it may be. And it did coin the unforgettable disparaging remark "farthammer." Yeah, I don't know what it means, either, but it's funny when it comes of Randy Quaid's mouth. It won't have you cracked-up like Kiss Kiss, but it's heavier on suspense and the twists are actually understandable.

This movie isn't glitzy or glamorous like most holiday offerings. It's more like the crappy-wrapped little package that's left forgotten and ignored-by-most under the tree. But for fans of black comedy and vintage noir, if unwrapped, this movie -- unlike my hack, mistletoe-heavy metaphors -- turns out to be a true gem.

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