New Reviews – ‘RocknRolla,’ ‘Zack and Miri’ and ‘The Other End of the Line’

Rocknrolla (dir: Guy Ritchie)

There is something a little pretentious about the possessive directorial credit: “A Joe Blow Film,” but in many cases it is deserved and some it’s more descriptive than a plot synopsis. Rocknrolla is a Guy Ritchie film, in every slang-filled Britgangster-talk line, every plot twist yanking the story threads into a single strand (in Ritchie’s case, it’s like a plot twist-tie), every flash of criminal code and junkie honor in the violent worlds of his street-level characters, and every corruption of honor (even the tarnished honor of his street thugs) by the blokes above it all, yanking the strings until the string yank back.

"RocknRolla" - Gerard Butler and Idris Elba
"RocknRolla" - Gerard Butler and Idris Elba

RocknRolla isn’t ambitious. It’s flashy, it’s garish, it’s self-aware and self-satisfied, it’s front loaded with exposition that flashes through character introductions and a survey of the very complicated relationships in the British underworld and it’s so packed with oh-so-clever bits that it’s entertaining even when you don’t know what’s going on. When you do know what’s going on, it’s not nearly as clever as it thinks it is. But it is kind fun, in a junk-food crime fantasy sort of way.

Gerard Butler is the ostensible lead as One Two, a freelance street thug and member of the loose brotherhood “The Wild Bunch” but in the scheme of things he’s just one part of an ensemble lorded over by crime boss Tom Wilkinson and explained by narrator Mark Strong, who plays his right-hand man Archy. There’s also a Russian mob muscling in, crooked politicians taking pay-offs, music impresarios, a wild-card drug addict on a mission of vengeance, lots of freelance muscle and a gorgeous bookkeeper (Thandie Newton) playing her own scams with the help of part-time lover and partner-in-crime One Two.

Rocknrolla is good at what it does, which is play out a violent criminal fairy tale in a movie gangster fantasy, where the good guys are just bad guys who look good only by contrast to the really bad guys, and where we root for the thugs who prey upon other thugs. In Ritchie’s world, there aren’t too many innocent folk, and most of them are duly scared off before they get hurt. Everyone else is fair game.

It’s an exceedingly cleverly pieced together puzzle of a movie with criss-crossing storylines that depend on a tremendous amount of dramatically apropos coincidence that tangle up into a narratively satisfying (if hardly surprising) neat little knot of poetic justice. You may not always guess right, but then it’s not the kind of film that makes you care about it until it happens. For all his attempts at suspense, it’s really about the minor pleasures of watching him play with film and style and storytelling. The crime movie genre isn’t a canvas, it’s a toybox and he’s merely finding new ways to play with old toys.

Zack and Miri Make a Porno (dir: Kevin Smith)

Kevin Smith once again trolls the depths of filthy language and bodily functions to find romance in the story of two lifelong friends who discover their true feelings when they team up to make a pornographic film.

Seth Rogen and Elizabeth Banks as Zack and Miri casting their porno

By today’s standards, that’s a date movie, though Smith isn’t quite to deft observer of young adult social life that Judd Apatow and friends are at their best, and he tends to find that long strings of scatological utterances are funny by virtue of being scatological.

Smith borrows some faces from the Apatow stable to make this work a little better than some of his films, including Apatow’s poster man-child Seth Rogen (who is a perfect Smith alter-ego) and sometime players Elizabeth Banks (as best buddy Miri) and Craig Robinson.

Jersey boy Smith moves this film to Pittsburgh’s suburbs, where the snow seems to fall with the grime already on it, and his working-class milieu and customer-service culture remain intact. Zack and Miri, struggling to survive in a tough economy, fall desperately behind on their bills. Their solution may be a stretch — it is a comedy, after all — but Smith understands the predicament and his matter-of-fact presentation makes it all the more relatable.

For all the nakedness and bizarre complications, the cast recalls the eccentric crew of Tim Burton’s “Ed Wood”: supportive, protective and good company.

I review the film for the Seattle P-I here.

The Other End of the Line (dir: James Dodson)

James Dodson’s multi-cultural date movie is a romantic comedy comfort food with ethnic offerings but no real spice.

Priya Sethi (Shriya Saran) isn’t an American, but she plays one on the telephone. As an employee of a Mumbai bank card call center, she tells customers she’s Jennifer David in an American accent that is almost perfect (and the few imperfections are attractive accents).

That facade is essential to the romantic illusion of The Other End of the Line. Not because it makes her any more attractive to Manhattan ad man Granger Woodruff (Jesse Metcalfe) — a commitment-phobic bachelor who spends hours on the phone sorting out an identity-theft issue — but because it emboldens an obedient Indian daughter to play the role of independent American woman.

Read the complete review here.

I also interview Kevin Smith for the “A Moment With” series:

On actor Seth Rogen:

He has the same outlook that I have on life and comedically we’re very, very much in synch. He told me, while we were shooting, that “I got into writing because of you, because of Clerks. ” For a dude who I’d just met months prior, we worked very well together.

On setting the film in Pittsburgh:

I really wanted to go someplace that seemed like the last place in the world people would ever think about, not just taking their clothes off but actually shooting it as well, and that wound up as Pittsburgh.

On researching the film:

You start at age 11 or 12. Unintentionally you’re researching it the whole time (laughs). But really, you scrape away the porno aspects of it, it’s more informed by the making of Clerks. It’s about a bunch of people who don’t know s*** about making a movie getting together to make a movie. Their movie just happens to be a skin flick.

Read the rest of it here.

Author: seanax

I write the weekly newspaper column Stream On Demand and the companion website (www.streamondemandathome.com). I’m a contributing writer for Turner Classic Movies Online, Keyframe, Independent Lens, and Cinephiled, and the editor of Parallax View (www.parallax-view.org).. I’ve written for The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, The Seattle Weekly, GreenCine.com, Senses of Cinema, Asian Cult Cinema, and Psychotronic Video, among other publications, and I am a contributing editor to Parallax View.

I currently live and work in Seattle, Washington, with my two cats, Hammet and Chandler.

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