Friday, February 8, 2008

Acting out in medieval Bruges

"In Bruges,'' which opened this year's Sundance Film Festival, finds first-time director Martin McDonagh biting off more than he comfortably can chew. But some amusing moments among the actors -- particularly Brendan Gleeson and Ralph Fiennes -- add a giddy tilt to a dark comedy about a couple of hit men who, quite improbably, wind up cooling their heels in the medieval Belgian town of Bruges.

I don't know why you keep going to movies, but one of the reasons I persist is that I occasionally run across something that tickles me out of a momentary funk. I had that kind of experience watching "In Bruges," particularly when Gleeson and Fiennes went toe-to-toe as a dour hit man and his exasperated boss. It's not always fatal to know you're watching a couple of actors at work -- and sometimes it even helps. That was the case for me with Gleeson -- down-to-earth, stolid and marinated in melancholy -- squared off against a mercurial Fiennes, as his unforgiving boss. When Fiennes goes at Gleeson, it's a bit like watching an angry wave attack a well-eroded shoreline.

The bulk of the story involves a trip to Bruges by Gleeson (sort of an elder statesman of hit men) and Colin Farrell (as a hit man suffering the burden of terrible guilt). Eager to avoid a nagging conscience, Farrell's Ken tries to have as good a time as possible in a town he considers a hopeless backwater; he strikes up a relationship with an intriguing young woman (Clemence Posey) and a dwarf (Jordan Prentice) who's in Bruges shooting a movie.

As is sometimes the case with first-time directors, McDonagh -- a playwright by trade -- strains to add quirkiness and edge. Moreover, the attempt to mix dark comedy, character study and gangster grit never quite coheres.

But Gleeson, Fiennes and Farrell are reason enough to give this one a look. Fine actors toying with one another remains a wondrous thing to behold, and to the extent that "In Bruges" affords us the opportunity, we should be grateful.


Vince Vaughn's Wild West Comedy Show: 30 Days & 30 Nights -- Hollywood to the Heartland. It might be the year's longest title; in fact, Vince Vaughn's new movie might be longer on title than on laughs, which is too bad. Vaughn took time out of his busy movie schedule to gather four comics and join them on the road for a 30-day marathon tour. The ensuing documentary mixes backstage footage, personal information and on-stage performances as the tour wends its way through the U.S. heartland. Vaughn offers on-stage help as he reels in guests including Jon Favreau and Justin Long. The four comedians -- Ahmed Ahmed, John Caparulo, Bret Ernst and Sebastian Masicalco -- alternately hit and miss with their routines. Each has an identifiable style, but it's difficult to tell whether any of them ever will crack the A-list. It's easier to say that the movie falls short of top-flight entertainment, offering sporadic laughs tempered by the usual anxieties of the road and by the fact that the tour eventually comes into contact with Hurricane Katrina and some of its victims.

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