Thursday, February 15, 2007
Friday, December 08, 2006
Dir: Woody Allen (The Purple Rose of Cairo; Love and Death; Husbands and Wives; Annie Hall; Crimes and Misdemeanors; Manhattan; Deconstructing Harry; Hannah and Her Sisters)
Shame on me for never having seen this film before. It's so smart and penetrating, a focused piece of psychology that is exactly what quality films should aspire to be. And yet, I had never heard of it before, and only queued it up in the interests of completing Allen's ouevre. A tucked away work of brilliance.
Gena Rowlands plays a philosophy professor who sublets an apartment where she intends to write a book. Next door, and audible through the duct work, a therapist examines Mia Farrow. The patient is pregnant and in the midst of a crushing midlife crisis that flirts with suicide. By eavsdropping on the sessions, Rowlands reexamines her own life, the choices she has made and the coldness of her relations with those around her. It is straight up Bergman (probably why I liked it so), even with the naked narration setting plot points and motivations.
Most of the film consists in frank conversations between Rowland and her husband, former suitor, step daughter or brother. The writing is highly theatrical, dense and intellectual. Indeed, the stage itself becomes an important metaphor in a dream sequence that allows Allen to be even more penetrating in his examination of this woman's psyche without the censoring blanket of convention hanging over the characters.
Ian Holm and Gene Hackman play the men in Rowlands, both as brilliant as you would expect from the amount of talent assembled on the set of this movie. A decrepit John Houseman, in his final performance, plays her bitter and regretful father, with one confessional scene in particular burning right to the core of the audience. No veneer of humor or whismy here, just raw honesty and subtle psychology.
My viewing companion made the important observation that Another Woman may triumph most in its choice to examine the life of a middle aged woman, a subjet matter so rare in film. Bergman does it, and Allen's reverence for the man translates into a highly worthy contribution to the themes that the great Swede explores in his work.
Another Woman is a real gem, a difficult and rewarding viewing experience that (I find myself writing this a lot lately) rates among the best of Allen's incomprable catalogue.
Wednesday, December 06, 2006
Dir: Woody Allen (Love and Death; Husbands and Wives; Annie Hall; Crimes and Misdemeanors; Manhattan; Deconstructing Harry; Hannah and Her Sisters)
My favorite Fellini film (so far) is Nights of Cabiria. It is hard to find a better juxtaposition of crushing life experience with transcendent human spirit and hope. Comedic and tragic, real and magical, it is a brilliant movie.
The Purple Rose of Cairo is not quite that good, but in its exploration of similar themes it puts in a monumental showing itself. Mia Farrow is a woman in a loveless and abusive marriage during the Depression. She escapes through the cinema and the sweeping lives of playboys and adventurers on the screen. One day, one of the actors in a movie she has seen several times walks off the screen. He himself seeks escape into reality, and the rest of the film explores themes of romance and reality, and the elusiveness of happiness. Allen takes a story that could easily have been one-note and augments it in suprising ways that I will not divulge here. But these twists open up new aspects of his theme, keeping the film from becoming a gimmick and nothing else.
Farrow is never my favorite actress, but she gives one of her best performances here. The standouts are Daniels and Danny Aiello as the abusive husband. The latter provides some moments of true menace among the whirlygig of the films and the romance, a reminder (along with the bread lines) of the harsh reality that films help us escape. The former plays a duel role with sufficient contrast to make it work.
The most overt Fellini reference comes at the end, where Allen lifts the ending to Cabiria. It was, for me, in both instances, one of the best film moments I have ever seen. It melts the heart of even this gruff cynic. Simple, subtle, honest, beuatiful, both endings are the perfect embodiement of "bittersweet." All of the events in both films lead up to that last moment, a testament to the patience of both directors and the focus of their vision.
Purple Rose is without a doubt among Allen's best, less complex or intellectual than some of his others but no less technically sound or well thought out. Romantic comedy at its highest form. A totally satisfying film experience, which is pretty much the point of the film.
Tuesday, December 05, 2006
Dir: Jacques Demy (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg; Donkey Skin)
Demy's flirtation with the American musical continues, and this time he's got the king of the genre involved. Gene Kelly lip syncs some French, everyone lip syncs some songs, and the return on our investement is a flat, forced film that seems artificial. What should be all charm and lightness ends up being a movie going through the motions.
Catherine Deneuve and Danielle Darriuex are sisters in a small town looking for romance and art through a move to Paris. Their mother owns a cafe, and everyone has either a long-lost love or some mind's eye vision of the perfect mate, and the film slowly brings everyone closer to fulfillment. Musical and dance numbers guide us along, and the choreography stands out here for its mediocrity. At this point in the evolution of musicals, we are well beyond the tired and repetitive ensemble dancing presented here. The songs are better, but not great.
Legrand was much better writing for Umbrellas. In fact, everything was better about Umbrellas. There, genuine emotion and quality acting undergirded a sweet and simple love story. Here, derivative cliche dominates. In Umbrellas, the music furthered characterization and story. Here, the songs are throw away reflections on puppy love and youth. Of course, in both, Demy's unforgiveable penchant for dubbed singing and dialogue detracts. But in Rochefort, the starting position was already poor.
There is some nice spectacle here, some good color and set design. And Gene Kelly, even in a role like this, deserves attention in everything he does. But this film belongs well near the bottom of your New Wave viewing list.
Wednesday, November 29, 2006
Second, they're going to ruin Marcus's favorite kid's movie:
Sci Fi Channel is planning a miniseries for December 2007 called Tin Man, "a wild SF reimagining of The Wizard of Oz." I assumed this meant a horribly low budget, the special effects of a local car commercial, and adding Cylons from Battlestar Galactica, but Sci Fi promises even more: The miniseries is a sometimes psychedelic, often twisted and always bizarre take on The Wizard of Oz. It centers on DG, a young woman plucked from her humdrum life and thrust into The Outer Zone (the O.Z.), a fantastical realm filled with wonder, but oppressed by dark magic... Remember how you were asking for The Wizard of Oz filtered through the disturbed notebook doodlings of an 8th grader? Well, this is it. Enjoy.
Wednesday, November 15, 2006
Dir: Daniel Mann (Come Back, Little Sheba; The Rose Tatoo; The Teahouse of the August Moon; In Like Flint)
Elizabeth Taylor took down an Oscar for her preformance as a woman avoiding her traumas with drink and men is this movie adapted from the John O'Hara novel. I read his "Appointment in Samarra" over the weekend, and in both works the underbelly of society life is exposed with merciless honesty. The book, brilliant. This film, pretty good. But Hollywood got a hold of it, and neutered what I wager was a more brutal and engaging novel.
If they gave out Oscars for sexy, then Taylor obviously deserved one here. Her performance is great, the femme fatale with serious wounds lying just below the surface, alluring and dangerous at the same time. You actually understand why all of these men fall in love with her, a rarity in a world where good acting and a pretty face rarely go together, and the pretty face usually gets the role. The opening scene is a pantomime where Taylor wakes up in a room and tries to remember what happened the night before, putting together clues through her hangover. It's the best part of the film.
Another standout is Laurence Harvey as her married, ne're-do-well society suitor. Like his performance in The Manchurian Candidate, Harvey just teems with rage, barely in control of himself as he rails against life and the world. He is one of the great heels in acting history. The sour acting note (and what a stinker it is) is made by Eddie Fisher. The man can't even come close to acting; he is blown out of the water by Taylor. It helps if you are sleeping with the lead actress to get roles I guess (personal memo: sleep with more lead actresses to jump start acting career).
The story shows lots of promise, even if it falls into that obvious kind of psychoanalysis, where the traumas are easy to diagnose and the self-destructive behavior evident to all. The ending is pretty silly as well. I am sure that O'Hara made all of this sound much more deep than it comes across on the screen. The twists on the ill-fated romance of Harvey and Taylor are welcome, and I found myself openly rooting for Taylor to make the correct decisions, even if her instincts were pointing her in the wrong directions. A better treatment could have made this a very engaging plotline.
But still, if you can't enjoy watching Taylor act then you can't enjoy the movies. She owns the screen, portrays a complex charatcer, and the storyline is certainly dark and interesting enough to hold your attention. Serious students of film must reckon with her, and so I recommend this film in the "sometime before you die" category.
Sunday, November 12, 2006
Dir: Warren Beatty (Heaven Can Wait; Dick Tracy; Bulworth)
Beatty channels Pasternak in this Zhivago-esque romantic epic about communist agitators in WWI America. Warren has as much to say about politics as the story itself, and at times the film theatens to teeter over into vanity or hero worship. But the ambition of the project and the sincerity of the writing and acting make Reds well worth watching, a movie definitely interested in being important and almost getting there.
Beatty (who also co-wrote the script) is John Reed, the leftist journalist whose chroncile of the Russian Revolution "Ten Days That Shook the World" was an international success. He is a member of a Greenwhich Village Communist clique that included the likes of Emma Goldmann and Eugene O'Neill. Diane Keaton is Lousie Bryant, a young woman who follows Reed to New York and struggles with finding her own voice in the revolution and commanding the attention of her frenetic lover. Much of the script deals with the clash between interpersonal and political passions by Beatty and Keaton, and it is the weaker part of the film. Love stories are hard, and I did not really get the reason that these two loved each other so much.
What did come across, really quite gloriously, was the political moment. The film recieved Oscar nominations in all four acting categories, with Jack Nicholson and Maureen Stapleton joining Keaton and Beatty. Jack is O'Neill, who longs for Keaton but is too cynical and romantic for her high minded politics. He, as you would expect, is electric, an actor really coming to understand his talents. Stapleton won for her supporting role as Goldmann. Even though her screen time is somewhat limited, she too has a fire that burns through the screen. Keaton too is quite good, inhabiting her daft blond routine early on but then finding some inner strength and confidence as her character comes into her own. And Beatty too does a fine job. He cares as much as his character does, and he is at his best when giving pasisoned speeches before Russian factory workers.
His direction too is highly capable. Zhivago really is the proper analogy here, with lots of grand snow blanketed images and tightly packed meeting halls. The project is huge, and for only his second movie he does a fine job. The Oscar winning cinematography is really fitting to the subject matter. The highlight of the entire film may be Beatty's device of using interviews with now very elderly contemporaries of Reed to serve as transitions between historical periods in the script. The interviews are suprising in their honesty; some adored the group, some hated them, some couldn't really remember them. It was that memory element that struck me, a subtle reference to the fact that the characters cared so deeply about the moment, and yet hardly anyone remembers them or their sacrifices anymore. Beatty makes his film to preserve their actions and to glamorize their lives, but even he recognizes the fungibility of memory. A really nice touch that rewarded the viewer throughout the film.
Reds is very accessible, a populist version of a really complex historical epic. There are lots and lots of things to like about it. Just a few notches below brilliant, the film is well worth your time, especially for the acting.
Thursday, November 09, 2006
Dir: Akira Kurosawa (The Lower Depths; The Bad Sleep Well; Kagemusha; Ikiru; Red Beard; High and Low)
AK, the master of exploring universal psychological themes, turns in yet another masterpiece in this bittersweet tale of greed and duty. While everyone knows about Lucas' statement that Hidden Fortress inspired Star Wars, the real comparison is to Treasure of the Sierra Madre, where the lust for gold compels men to betray each other and do the most abhorent things.
Lucas was referring to the perspectival elements of this film, how the story is told from two of lower characters' point of view. A couple of shifty and cowardly con artists, the pair stumble upon some hidden gold and a warrior (ah, Toshiro Mifune) who is keen to keep the treasure for the exiled princess who is in his protection. The four set out to transport the riches to safe territory.
What is so compelling about the film is the blend of comedy and penetrating insight. AK has a way of taking stock characters and turning up the volume on their characteristics so that we recognize the archetypal nature of their actions. And yet, nothing feels forced or contrived. The script is both idiosyncratic and universal, a talent that it is hard to describe but very easy to recognize in this film. It is, for example, far more approachable than Madre, which takes the same theme of greed and puts a much more pessimistic gloss on it. It is a change of mood against the typical, highly dramatic treatment of this subject matter from a director who specializes in inhabiting genuine, recognizable emotional states.
Like his other films, I find that uplifiting element very agreeable. There is something life affirming in Hidden Fortress, even at the point that AK crushes our foibles and ridicules our selfish tendencies. The film is profund, and rests in the grey areas of human motivations.
A stunning and extraordinarily entertaining work of art. In the conversation of the man's best films.
Tuesday, November 07, 2006
This was a pretty funny movie. I laughed very very hard. The EW cover that said "Is this the funniest movie ever?" was a little off of course. It was not that funny. I would say slightly below Spinal Tap or Bad Santa but a good level above the finest of Adam Sandler dumb comedies. For those of you who live in a cave, Borat is the creation of the Cambridge educated British comedia Sacha Baron Cohen. He is an idiotic Kazakhstani reporter sent to America to explore a foreign nation. Borat's humor works by verbally and physically stumbling into situations where the ignorance of Americans is clearly on display.
The movie is a little bit dumber than the show on HBO was. Borat was one of three characters on Cohen's Da Ali G Show. Some of the scenes in this movie are played more for gross out than sharp political humor. Those toilet humor scenes are less effective because the rest of the movie demonstrates just how smart Borat can be.
Borat is sexist, racist, and pretty much any -ist that is bad that you can think of. His behaviors are more telling about the nature of America than the nature of Kazakhstan of course. Whenever his sexism or racism is greated with encouragement or tacit support it hits you a little bit in the gut. Many say that you could not make Blazing Saddles today because the content seems so racist. I think perhaps its true that getting a studio to greenlight it would be difficult. But if this movie does well, I think there is hope that transgressive comedy that is really offensive can continue to reign.
Saturday, November 04, 2006
One of my old favorites I revisited recently. This is a complex film. Charlie Sheen is Chris Taylor, a green enlisted man thrown into Vietnam. He has abandoned an elite college and lifestyle in the United States to learn what it means to be at war. His two commanding officers are Tom Berenger's Barnes and Willem Dafoe's haunting Elias. Barnes and Elias represent two forces battling for Taylor's soul. Barnes is the brutal, animalistic and savage win at all costs warriors. Elias is the inherently peaceful and good soul, who is nonetheless skilled at warfare.
The supporting actors are great as well. Kevin Dillon as a bloodthirsty grunt named Bunny and John C. McGinley as O'Neill, Barnes' sycophantic Lieutenant, are both phenomenal. But while the performances are stellar what sets this film apart is its treatment of the material. It deviates from the scope of many Vietnam films, and many war films before it in general.
Apocalypse Now has always struck me as more Conrad and less Saigon City than other war movies. Vietnam is an appropriate setting for the journey into the darkness of Man, but much about the war itself is lost in Coppola's literary treatment of the war. Larger than life figures like Duvall's Kilgore and Brando's Kurtz cover over existing and relevant critiques of class and race inherent to the US's involvement in Vietnam.
The Deer Hunter is also limited in the scope of how it treats characters. It's examination has a definite bent towards class, to be certain, but its study is more about the effect war in general has on people and less about the uniqueness of Vietnam as a political event for shaping a generation. The film reflects less on the question of "Should we have been in Vietnam?" and more on "What is the result for those who fought there?".
The second half of Full Metal Jacket (released a year later than Platoon) is still less a movie about Vietnam and more about war in general. Its end with the gun wielding female character is interesting in terms of the inversion of traditional notions of masculinity and warfighting, but speaks more and more to universal conceptions about war than what specifically Vietnam meant. And the first half of that movie, a stinging indictment of militarism, haunts far more viewers than the tepid second half.
Platoon says a lot of the things that these movies say, and says it better. While on a grand scale I prefer the literary artistry of Apocalypse Now, Platoon punches me right in the gut everytime I see Elias fall as the Viet Cong chase him while the helicopters circle above his bloody body. The tagline for the movie was "This is the first real movie about Vietnam". We can interpret this several ways. One is that its "real" in the sense that its depiction of the battles is realistic. Indeed, military advisers on the film praised its realism over and above that of battle scenes in Apocalypse Now or The Deer Hunter. It also opened up a space for more brutal representations of war like those found in Hamburger Hill. Showing lots of bodies on stretchers goes a long way to counter the objection from visual rhetoricians that war movies valorize violence and combat. In this movie, combat does not seem glorious. It seems horrible and scary. It could also be "the first real movie about Vietnam" because it is a real movie in the sense that it is a truly great film- that it is high art and is really specifically about Vietnam as an Event.
The film is also a meditation on what the idea of "enemy" means. The Viet Cong are depicted and shadowy and faceless. They are efficient fighters. They are not above brutality. But for Stone the enemy is within- within the platoon and within the soul. Stone certainly seems to support both Elias and Barnes as leaders over the indecisive nominal Lieutenant of the platoon whose incompetence results in friendly fire deaths. Elias, for all his goodness, is cut down by Barnes. Is this saying that to survive in war you have to be an overwhelmingly brutal character? Perhaps. But then again the idea of Elias is what motivates Taylor to get through the violence and eventually kill Barnes. After all, it is Barnes who cares not for the slaughter and rape that occurs in a village when the platoon is mad with bloodlust after some of their number are tortured by the VC.
Two things about this film I do not like. The voiceovers to me say things that the director could show. In fact, I think the movie shows all of these things. The voiceovers that talk about how Taylor misses home or how the war is a different world are unnecessary. Any viewer can get this from his mannerisms, his discomfort on the trail, his suffering during the silence of a night ambush. His narration at the end of the film is unnecessary for sure.
The second thing I do not like is the climax. As Barnes is poised to kill Chris, a napalm blast brushes him off of Sheen. Burned near to death by the blast, he is an easy target for Taylor to kill. While Talyor now shows himself capable of really killing, the message is hollow. In order to defeat Barnes, Taylor needed the help of a higher power. One reading is that this indicates that the violence of war is so powerful that to fight it is near hopeless. I hold out hope that the meaning of the scene is that there is a higher power behind all that is good and right even when it shows up in wartime, on a violent palette that at all times tries to cut off and annihilate goodness. The napalm from the heavens is a sign that there is some greater ethics that rewards the followers of Elias and punishes Barnes. The problem, however, is that war is indiscriminate. It spares none. Convenient that in the final pitched battle Barnes and more of his followers fall than adherent of Elias. So while I support the ending message, it contravenes the stark and powerful realism of the rest of Stone's film. I do love this movie, despite the end.
Dir: Estela Bravo (The Cuban Excludables)
Hero worshiping propaganda piece about the long time dictator of Cuba. Not that I am opposed to propaganda; there are plenty of half truths and overgeneralizations on all sides of this particular issue that one more hardly should rankle us. Taken dispassionately, as an argument, this documentary does what most of its kind do; presents the best positive case it can and then conveniently ignores or outright lies about the negatives.
As far as dictators go, Castro is on the more tolerable end. He isn't motivated by race, hasn't slaughtered millions, is not developing chemical weapons or trying to destroy the infidels. In Fidel, we have run of the mill power hunger and political repression. And yet, it is undeniable that he has been on the right side of many international issues. It is his foreign policy that is mostly covered by this documentary. His defense of Angola, his early allegiance with the anti-aparthied cause, and his resitance to right wing regimes in Latin America that were supported by the United States are all the actions of someone who has no political price to pay for standing up to powerful countries. Having the US as an enemy helped him domesticly (what a blessing the embargo was to his stability!), and his patronage by the USSR was guaranteed so long as they were able. Castro had the freedom to become the darling of the international left wing.
This documentary conducts interviews with the usual suspects for Castro praise, Harry Belafonte and Alice Walker and Angela Davies and the like. There are no original Catro interviews here, just snippets of other broadcasts. Essentially, the documentary is a piece of editing, not original film work. The story is coherent, at least, and the pre-revolutionary parts of Castro's life are covered well. But the film is hardly a spellbinding production.
Easily, though, the most interesting part of the film is what is not said. Human rights within Cuba are given about three minutes, perhaps. The film maker acknowledges criticisms of the lack of dissent, the jailing of political prisoners, and the odd fact that a man of the people has rejected democracy for forty years. The responses are two-fold: one, "how can you expect him to be a democrat when the big bad USA is always against him" and two (I kid you not, this is run by Harry Belofonte in the film) "political dissent shouldn't be tolerated in Cuba becuase almost everyone supports Castro." This delicious bit of ironic apologetics is worth watching the documentary for itself. No one hates Castro, and those that do should be locked up because no one hates Casrto.
That segment is a microcosm of the problem with this sort of issue. In a polarized rhetorical setting, you either accept Castro wholeheartedly or completely reject him. You either forgive his intolerable domestic repression or support an embargo on the country. There is no room in this film, or in the world apparently, to both admire his foreign policy and abhor his tactics, to acknowledge his ability to pick a fight but reject his methods of waging it. Fidel is a bad, bad documentary becuase it is unsophisticated. That it reflects our civic discourse is a sad affair.
Saturday, October 14, 2006
Dir: Paul W. S. Anderson (Mortal Kombat; Resident Evil)
I was left out of the great AVP fest in its initial release. And I want to be one of the cool kids. So, On Demand to the rescue. Like the Predator, I have marked my flesh after having won the battle with a most fiendish foe, Paul W. S. Anderson and his deadly weapon of lameness.
It makes sense that the man specializes in video game movies, because this film is a video game narrative. Equip your character, have some training time, and then descend into some sort of dungeon or haunted house or abandoned space station and encounter a series of increasingly powerful monsters, solve puzzles, collect treasure, and then gang up on the big mother monster at the end.
My favorite part of the film? How this ancient pyramid, miles underneath a polar ice cap, is not cold enough that you need a heavy jacket or that we can see your breath. I mean, the most basic scenic element, the freaking cold in the ice palace, is not even done properly. I guess the Predators have a space heater or something. And the purpose behind having the pyramid change configuration every ten minutes escapes me. It seems like a lot of work to build that thing (out of stone, no less, I guess the space age metals they use to build their weapons weren't available, so they made humans cut several thousand tons of rocks and drag them to the pole, dig a giant hole, and build the intricate interlocking pieces to make thousands of configurations there). But if the Predator's know it is going to shift, then what is the advantage?
I know the real reason that Anderson employed that device. Becuase he thought Krull was the best fantasy movie ever, and couldn't wait to employ references to it in AVP. He even has the ornate throwing star/boomerang thing. I kept waiting for a Cyclops and a gay guy in a Robin Hood outfit to swoop in on some fire stallions to save the day. What, Willow was not good enough to rip off, Paul W. S. (meaning, not the good one) Anderson?
What saves this movie from just being boring is the fascinating attempt at anthropology in the script. The Predators had the pyrmaids built. Under an ice cap. As a warrior training camp. Oh, and they are Gods. And the entire history of archaeology couldn't crack that nut. You know what, I love that narrative. It shows the writers were thinking through the plausibility of Alien vs. Predator on Earth. The script meeting must have been: "Hey guys, how is the audience going to buy that the two monsters just happened to show up on the Earth to duke it out? We need to explain how that happened. It'll blow their minds!"
Even the end battle fails to deliver. The Predator essentially becomes Al Harris, all shoulder pads and dreadlocks, unable to beat the Alien without a human's help. This is the guy that took down the Body? The Predators, like the Packers, have really gone down hill.
Thanks, guys. Thanks for making me jealous so that I had to watch this thing. Next time, when you see some piece of crap, just keep it to yourself.
Thursday, October 12, 2006
When Martin Scorcese is at the top of his form, few directors can match him. I consider Raging Bull, Goodfellas, and Taxi Driver to be three of my favorite movies of all time. I like these three movies for different yet similar reasons. The first is excellent for its willingness to be overwhelmingly brutally honest about its flawed protagonist. The second is as well done a mob movie as you will find this side of Coppola. And the third is a stirring and frightening tale of urban decay and societal alienation. The Departed is most similar to Goodfellas given the obvious mob link, but I feel there is a little bit of Raging Bull and Taxi Driver in this movie.
This movie was very, very good. The last two Scorcese movies had points to recommend. Daniel Day-Lewis' performance in Gangs of New York was absolutely fabulous, and The Aviator was compelling if somewhat marred by Leonardo DiCaprio's boyish looks. But I can only encourage you strongly to go see this movie. The cast is first rate. Jack Nicholson as mob boss Frank Costello. Ray Winstone as his righthand man. Dicaprio and Matt Damon as moles in the other's respective organizations (the police and mob). The performances are amazing, particularly Nicholson's raucous gangster and Winston'e vicious killer.
But what makes me so adore this movie is how Scorcese respects the audience. He gives us a ton of information in the movie without blatantly pointing it out or noting it. Scorcese makes it clear with a few hints that one character had alcoholic parents, for example, but never comes right out and says it with a big freaking neon sign like so many directors would.
Scorcese also puts together masterful soundtracks. His classic rock music laid throughout Goodfellas was so right, and on this soundtrack he really outdoes himself. There was a moment in this movie late that was so tense, I could not remember feeling so anxious in a movie theater, and this is in no small measure due to the director's skill at picking the right music at the right time.
If there is any bone I had to pick with this movie, I would say there were a few too many climaxes. The third act is relatively long (but does not extend so far as to cause a popular revolt a la Gangs of New York). There is no one scene that has the punch of the series of dead bodies found to Layla in Goodfellas. But this is a quibble. Go see this movie.
Dir: John Stainton (Crocodile Hunter TV Series; first film)
Every once in a while, I watch a film where the context of viewing overtakes the story itself. For obvious reasons, I sought out Collision Course to have just that sort of experience. Yes, it's a kid's film, an extended version of the TV show, the work of those who are looking to make a quick buck on a franchise. But in this narrow window of history, it is a fantastic time.
It is a fact that Steve Irwin was a tremendous personality, a force that filled the small screen and does a pretty good job commanding the big screen as well. Thankfully, his greatest feature was his combination of enthusiasm with self deprecation. He knows he is a clown, an entertainer that we are laughing even as we admire his courage. So, Irwin thrusts his fingers into crocodile poo and smears it on his shirt, a big grin on his face. But he also holds a snake by its tale and flings it around. Irwin was a showman, a daredevil with an act full of one-liners. I often find myself flipping by his show and watching ten minutes or so. And I pass by lots more stuff than I linger on, so that is worth something.
The parts of the movie that are not directly related to Irwin teasing deadly animals are what you would expect. There are some bad actors playing some bad roles. Some silly humor and some stuff blows up. There is some sort of plot about government secrets that matters very little. One odd note is that inter-agency in-fighting in the American government has become so routine that it even shows up in a kid's movie about Australian crocodile wranglers. If that is not reason for intelligence reform, I don't know what is.
None of that, though, mattered much while I was watching the film. This is well worth tracking down in the near furutre so that you can truly appreciate the irony of Irwin's death. It is at one level obvious; the man who provokes animals for a living died at the hand(tail) of an animal. But in this film, the constant allusions to danger, the admonishments to the audience not to do the very dangerous things he is doing, are so common that the irony of the whole thing overwhelms. It's morbid, it's fascinating, it's creepy.
And I had a great time experiencing it. I guess if entertainment value is why we watch films in the end, then Collision Course delivers. Here is hoping that Steve Irwin is poking dangerous animals with short sticks somwhere in TV heaven. He tempted fate so that we might be moderately entertained. He seemed to enjoy doing it, which is the only way to judge a life.
Wednesday, October 11, 2006
Dir: Carl Theodor Dreyer (Vampyr; Day of Wrath)
I was a fool to wander and astray
Straight is the gate and narrow the way
Now I have traded the wrong for the right
Praise the Lord, I saw the light.
-Hank Williams (the good one)
My long dark days of prejudice against the silent film are now over. I have seen the light. And no, I have absolutely know problem comparing this film to Biblical revelation; it is that good.
99% of the sound films that I have seen are boring and lifeless compared to this peerless work. More is told in one forlorn look into the camera, one sweep across a set of fat and fatuous judges, one hand woven crown here than in hundreds of pages of script across countless lesser works. The singularity theme is appropriate, for this film is singular in its brilliance.
Maria Falconetti is spellbinding as Joan, the pious and probably insane French girl whose faith and hartred of the occupying English drives her to martyrdom. The film is a courtroom drama of the most famous trial in the history of the Western world that did not involve Jesus, a trumped up charge of witchcraft to justify relieving the church of this bothersome claimant to divine grace. Even for a silent film, the focus on the nuance of the trial, the hypocricy of the questions, and the undetermined faith of the accused pays off in a fascinating examination of the way philsophical categories can be twisted into accusations against the unorthodox.
Dreyer wrings all of the proper lessons out of this historical moment. The conduct of the clergy is familiar and inexcusable, but we see it as only one moment in an enternity of wagon circling and self protection from those who supposedly represent truth and compassion. Politics, business, religion, the family, you name it, you can recognize what these particular priests are doing; protecting their own authority from the bold and popular challenger.
Mind you, all of the lessons are told visually. The text is minimal, after all. The film is shot almost entirely in close-up. The faces, especially the mercurial Falconetti, convey so much information. The restoration on the print (found in a Norwegian insance asylum after it was thought to be lost) is impeccable, the best looking silent film I have ever seen. Dreyer controls his camera so well, making sweeping shots and movements that seem decades ahead of his time. This is what silent film acting and directing should be; a supreme focus on conveying information with facial expression, gesture, and blocking. No one I have ever seen has understood this like Dreyer does in this film.
The Passion of Joan of Arc is a perfect storm of powerful material, deep and insightful writing, brilliant acting and visionary directing. It stands up to any film made today both technically and as entertainment. I really was thrilled by watching it. It was not silent films that I did not like, it was obsolete and dated filmmaking. Dreyer was ahead of his time, a virtuoso who has made an essential film. BME.
Dir: Nicole Kassell (First film)
Gutsy film dancing around the edges of a sympathetic view of a child molester. Kevin Bacon, after his release from prison, gets a job and tries to assimilate back into the normal world. He takes up with Kyra Sedgwick, an outcast who herself wrestles with the effects of past abuse. Over the film, Bacon must try to resist the temptation to repeat his crimes and maneuver an outraged and impatient set of peers.
This is the sort of film I am predisposed to like, because it tells a story that I haven't seen before. In order to avoid the facile qualities of an after school special, the script finds places for us to identify with and care about the deeply flawed protagonist. Indeed, the entire cast seems to share the scars that he has inflicted, on one end or the other. The ubiquity of tragedy throughout the film makes everything feel dirty and dark. The whole world is screwed up, and people like Bacon are on one end and we are on the other. But everyone is a part of it.
Bacon's performance is very good for its understatement, the sort of thing Philip Seymour Hoffman is perfect at. Bacon's character is the ultimate introvert, hiding his shame and his demons from the rest of us. He blissfully resists the temptation to overact. The supporting cast is even stronger, though. Sedgwick is tough as nails, and Benjamin Bratt is rather good too as Bacon's sympathetic yet skeptical brother-in-law. But the supporting show is stolen by Mos Def as the philosophical detective who has his eye on Bacon. His lines are nice, but he gives them a tremendously mysterious quality, a real depth beneath his reflections on temptation and evil that were quite thrilling to watch. He has some real talent.
The film, while full of good points, fails to really pay off in the way that would make it essential. And I am not sure how it could. The subject matter is so inexplicable, so raw and real in the lives of so many, that the film cannot really offer any solution. The film's answer lies in an identification between the two ends of the crime, a recognition of the other that causes a hesitation of one's own compulsion. But I didn't need this film to tell me that. The movie does showcase the too often ignored and yet rampant phenomenon of sibling/sibling molestation, an important twist of focus from grubby uncles in dirty overcoats that should be applauded.
We will not punish a film because its story is ambitious. The writing, directing, and especially the acting are solid all around. And the theme of the project is a very important one, as society continues to elevate the protection of children above all other goals. The Woodsman makes this issue more complex, a welcome nuance to the Nancy Grace/Mark Foley approach to the problem that currently dominates out national discourse.
Monday, October 09, 2006
Dir: Terrence Malick (Badlands; The Thin Red Line; The New World)
There are some films that one is too young to understand. When I first saw this film, who knows how many years ago, it left no real impression. I was learning film, and Malick was a name to explore, move on to the next one. But now, with the moderate amount of life experience that I can now claim, Days of Heaven opens like a flower, brilliant and filling all the senses, a near perfect spectacle and perhaps the most beautifully shot film I have ever seen. This time, there was a mark.
The minimalism of the dialogue and plot mask fathoms of wisdom and insight in the story. Richard Gere and Brooke Adams are migrant farm workers, who show up at Sam Shepard's farm with young Linda, Gere's sister, in tow. They hatch a scheme, where Adams will marry Shepard in order that the secret couple might live off of his money. But the heart is fickle, Adams is torn between the two, and the whole plot unravels, taking the characters with them. Highly allegorical, the plot would make a fine novel, dwelling on the interior psychology of the characters.
But Malick has no lofty chapters to expose those feelings. He has his camera. And to what ends does he use it. I have never, hands down, in my life seen a film with more beautiful shots of the sky. Every scene seems to be filmed at that exact three minute window near the dusk when the colors of the sunset are most vibrant. The Texas panhandle's infintie horizon features giant panorama's of color, cloud, and light. The characters live their lives under the umbrella of the atmosphere, a bid to the insignificance of any one story and yet the universality of it at the same time. Nature abound in the film, animals and vegetation forever the backdrop for the actions of the characters, themselves not as impervious as they think from the instinctual and predetermined motivations of the beasts and the plants.
Of particular interest is Malick's narrator, the young Linda Manz who exudes complete authenticity as the world wise young girl. Her dialogue is uncannily right, both for her character and for the contemplative tone of the film. Simple yet profound, plain yet poetic, she tells us all we need to know about the characters. As their actions unfold, Malick supplements her narration with plenty of symbolism, so that the meaning of the film richly unfolds in suprising and compelling ways.
Malick's work here was quite simply awesome. It was like going to an art mueseum. Truly beautiful and moving. A tremendous experience, to be approached with appropriate sensitivity, pantience, and enough taste to meet the skills of the filmmaker.
Dir: Woody Allen (Husbands and Wives; Annie Hall; Crimes and Misdemeanors; Manhattan; Deconstructing Harry; Hannah and Her Sisters)
Odd little Allen film, a comedy set in Russia during the Napoleonic wars. While the setting is period, the humor is classic Allen, transporting his brand of philosophical and psychoanalytic verbal humor and physical comedy without too much translation for the setting. While the film is funny, the redundancy of the writing puts Love and Death back among the pack of Allen's early comedies.
Allen is a waifish pacifict who is forced into fighting for Russia after Napoleon invades. He is in love with Diane Keaton, who in turn pines for his older, more brutish brother. Through the standard comedy set of plot points, Allen and Keaton make a bid to assasinate Napoleon. The signature of the film are a series of philosophical discussions about good and evil, the nature of love, ethics, and metaphysics. They are humorous, but I do think Allen goes to the well a few times too often to ensure the premise is kept fresh. There are allusions to Russian literature that lend a satisfying sense of recognition to those who have read their Dostoevsky, and the philosophical jokes are learned enough that it is safe to call the film intellectual.
However, the humor drops off quite a bit in the second half as the novelty wears off. In many ways, the film feels experimental. Allen is playing around with the genre that he did more than anyone else to resurrect, the screwball comedy. While Bananas was less intellectual, and Sleeper broader and more physical, both were also funnier than Love and Death. It is easy to see Allen's decision to leave screwball behind and write more sophisticated, character driven comedies in the 80's. He is looking for something deeper here, but does not really deliver it.
The film is fair. For Allen completists (like myself) only.
Dir: Stephen Gaghan (Abandon)
Paul makes a Godfather II comparison to this film in his previous review. I cannot be sure that his suggestion did not bury itself in my mind when I read that in December, but it was nice to find that I was thinking the same thing when watching Syriana.
I probably think that Syriana does not get as close to that work of genius than either Paul or Ron do, however. The subject matter is essential, the acting (especially Clooney, Damon less so) is solid, and the script is both complicated yet understandable. But in the end, I think the thematic approach of the script is a little too easy. Corporations are corrupt is such a trite message that it wears thin on me; children's movies routinely feature the meme! Yes, it is true, and yes, there are lots of people who do not quite get it. But in terms of my personal aesthetic and persuasive experience with a political movie, I want a little more analysis than just "oil men will do whatever it takes to get money."
Much more interesting than that was the examination of the Arab side of the equation. The internal power stuggles between the reform minded, forward looking brother and the cautious, conservative, and religiously minded heir apparent did much to add nuance to what is so often seen as a monolithic culture. The public relations angles, the brief scenes of the regular citizens of the country, the tension between traditional values like the unquestioned authority of the father and the needs to adapt (economically and politically and socially) to wealth and Westernization were well thought out and engaging.
Less engaging by far were the limp attempts to bring all of these machinations home to the families of the American pawns. The crying wife and the disaffected children are mechanical, formulaic, and in this case poorly done (I never liked Amanda Peet anyway). Add to that what I found to be the gratuitous child death scene, mere shock in a bid for emotional impact, and I just was not moved. Here is a screenwriting tip: if you kill a child and I don't even know their name, let alone anything about them, that is gratuitous. It's a bid to generate sympathy for Matt Damon through the instrumentality of a kid's drowning. It is both lazy and manipulative.
And that is why Syriana has good parts but gets nowhere near Godfather II. In that piece of genius, the family struggles are just as compelling, just as lovingly crafted and intricate as the almost impossibly complicated political themes. Almost impossibly, because there is a difference between smarter-than-me and confused. There is also a difference between moving and shocking. Godfather II is the former on both counts; Syriana has too much simplicity and not enough heart to rise that far.
Monday, October 02, 2006
What a great movie. Really, really fabulous. An interrogation of the subconscious, sleep, and the way that relationships create in all of us a double consciousness and anxiety about what we are doing and thinking. This movie is pushed as a sort of escapism but in ways I think it is very, very real. It lays bare the neuroses, anxieities, and fears of anyone who is figuring out that they are in love and are deeply afraid of what that may cause.
Gael Garcia Bernal plays Stephane, and Charlotte Gainsbourg plays Stephanie (note the subtle paralellism). Stephane has just moved back to Paris from Mexico to take a job laying glue and type in a boring office. The work is incredibly lame to Stephane, who spends his down time drawing colorful pictures of disasters to represent every month of the year for a calendar called "Disasterology". At night Stephane dreams colorful, blazing, and amazing dreams of telling off his boss, flying through the air, and a host of other imagery that could come only from the subsconsious.
Stephane means Stephanie when he moves into his new place in Paris. Stephanie is renting from his mother. The two have a connection- besides the names, they can come together in flashes of artisitic creativity where they both strongly enjoy each other's company. But Stephane's detatchment from reality proves a barrier to his relationship with Stephanie. He also has a dysfunctional relationship with his mother and colorful relations with his workmates (the best of whom is played by Alain Chabat in a delightfully dirty turn).
The film is very sweet, and moving in a way. I urge everyone to go see it. The paralells between Stephane and Stephanie helped to remind me of the constant dual anxiety that goes along with dating and relationships- the paranoia that your date will not meet you for coffee, the fear that they will hold a single gaffe against you so much that it wil destroy the relationship, and the emotional difficulty of opening yourself up to loss. The stunning visuals were an accoutrement, not a distraction, to this great movie.
Saturday, September 30, 2006
Dir: Robert Wiene (Raskolnikov; Panic in Chicago; A Night in Venice)
At the behest of a reader, I watched this classic of silent horror hoping for more than I had found in Nosferatu. And I did. Not enough to really enjoy the film, mind you (my irrational prejudices and poverty of taste continues to control the silent movie experience). But there was a richness of detail to the production of the film that I can say its high reputation is more deserved.
The set design is the hands down triumph of the film. The expressionist trends in art at the time get faithful adaptation here. The buildings, for example, slant at odd angles, with windows and doors in the shapes of trapezoids and right triangles. Furniture is out of proportion, such as the high stools that government clerks sit on so that they have to lean forward to reach down to their desktops, twisted in tension creating pretzels. The sets feel like they were for a Kafka play, adding an artificiality and discord to every single scene that is very effective. A lot of detail and attention went into creating the environment for this movie, and many of the frames could hang in museums. Think Munch. Really good stuff.
Everything else about the film is dated and silly. The plot has something to do with psychological hysteria, where a shrink takes a guy who sleeps all the time and manipulates his mind to make a killing machine. But the killer is also horny, so he goes after the girl. I am sure this was all too shocking back in the day, but now it is just incoherent. The acting is acceptable, I guess. Caligari is creepy, and the sleeping guy does some nice stuff with his eyes. But there are significant pockets of dead time when the two aren't on the screen.
This really isn't a horror movie. It is an excuse to utilize the fascinating sets that Wiene had built. I could have looked at those for an hour and just skipped the acting, writing, and story.
But at least now I can say that I have seen the thing.
Tuesday, September 26, 2006
Dir: Charles Vidor (Hans Christian Anderson; The Joker is Wild; Rhapsody)
Glenn Ford passed recently. One of those incredibly prolific character actors with lead talent, Ford was a favorite of mine from Blackboard Jungle. Gilda was cited often at the time of his death as another gem.
The mass media, in this case, was correct. Gilda is great, a very fun and darkly sexual noir that has quite enough banter and flirtation to thoroughly entertain. Ford is a down and out hustler who hooks on with an Argentinian casino owner. When the boss brings how a new wife, who happens to be the bitter ex-lover of Ford, the stage is set for some complicated machinations. The fact that Rita Hayworth plays the bombshell certainly does nothing to detract from the viewing experience. After all, she gave good face, and lots of other good stuff too.
The plot is the weak point of the film, involving some dumb scheme to corner the tungsten market and some ex-Nazis and other weirdness. It makes little sense. But the dialogue is full of good lines and euphemisms. The star of the show is the sexual tension between Hayworth, Ford, and George Macready. Those folks can act, and the dance between them is very fun. The dark turn that the movie takes about 2/3 through provides an interesting twist on what could have been a very trite plot, even if it does get silly at the end.
A movie like this is what American cinema does well. A high entertainment ratio, an accessible set of characters and a sense of mood that is quite satisfying. I really enjoyed Gilda, and am glad to have celebrated the life of Glenn Ford by viewing it.
Thursday, September 21, 2006
Dir: Jean-Luc Godard (Alphaville)
I don't think Godard and I are going to get along. Sure, he's an OK guy and all. I certainly can see where other people would really like him. But there is just something about him that, well, bores me. I am sure it is my fault, that I am not giving him a chance. Too many people like that guy for me to be correct. And yet, I can't say that I would go out of my way to have a beer with the guy.
Breathless is one of those minimalist character studies of the stoic hood that has been done real well before, but here becomes so stripped down and sparse that it failed to grip my attention. A cop killer and otherwise bad guy woos an initally innocent American newspaper girl in Paris. At first just a fling, she soon is wrapped in his dangerous and cold lifestyle, forced to choose between joining his doomed fate or abandoning adventure.
People love this movie. But I found the plodding nature of the unfolding relationship tedious (God, I sound like those people I hate that just can't get into a film unless stuff blows up or some boobs are prominent in the first twenty minutes!). Godard was much more philosophical in Alphaville, where at least aphorisms gave me something to chew on amidst the lean plot. But here, the meaning is supposed to come from thigs like 20 minute scenes of the couple smoking in bed, the theif demanding sex and the girl being coy. I just didn't buy her with him. Now, the seduction of a dangerous lifestyle is easier to buy, and certainly the movie is at its height as she wrestles with her self destructive and youthful desire to live as this cold blooded killer does. But Godard's overall approach to that worthwhile subject is so detached and implied that even a somewhat savvy filmgoer like myself felt ignored by the movie.
I really didn't like Breathless. I wonder if I am flawed, or the others are pretentious. I am sure I will give Godard another look, invite him out for another drink. But I wouldn't be surprised if I walk out in the middle.
Monday, September 11, 2006
Dir: Woody Allen (Annie Hall; Crimes and Misdemeanors; Manhattan; Deconstructing Harry; Hannah and Her Sisters)
Yet another masterpiece of drama from one of cinema's true greats. The deep introspection of the man is on full display here, the final film he would make with by that his ex-wife Mia Farrow. When that couple works through its on-screen relationship (permit me the obvious and constant allusion), it is just like Bergman working through his affair with Liv Ullmann. The tragic flaws of Allen's persona in Deconstructing Harry are here in a milder form, but still showing Allen's increasing frankness with himself.
Six characters predominate. Allen and Farrow are a couple who are forced to examine their marriage after the sudden divorce of their friends, played by Judy Davis and Sydney Pollack. Now that man has some talent; he is great as the stifled and lecherous Jack. Davis as well plays her role with gusto, anrgy and vulnerable and neurotic and yet defiant and strong at the same time. Liam Neeson is OK but not particularly noteworthy, unlike Juliette Lewis in what must easily be her best work as a nymphette who stands as the ultimate temptation for the self destructive Allen.
Lewis has one scene in particular that is among the best of Allen's oeuvre. She has read Allen's manuscript, and is getting up the courage to critique his sexual politics. During a cab ride, the conversation is presented in snippets, the camera continually in close up on her face (ahem, Bergman again). The editing shows us the arc of the conversation in fits and starts, drawing our attention to the changes over time. That cab ride could have taken 5 minutes or 1 hour, we do not know, but we do know that Lewis travelled miles as a woman. The scene's courage, technique, writing and acting are exemplary, the sort of thing I would show in a class about film.
In another jarring scene, Pollack feels compelled to leave a party after his young girlfriend embarasses him among his intellectual friends. A fight ensues, and the thing is real and thrilling that it is almost painful to watch. Masters at the top of their craft across the board.
Allen uses a pseudo-documentary device, having a camera crew interview his actors in character about each other and the development of the story. He almost goes overboard with these things at times, but once again his talent is so strong that they still seem natural. Like Bergman before him (hat trick!), the man is inventive but always in the interests of developing story, not gimmicky or for the sake of cleverness alone.
Husbands and Wives often slips through the cracks of the Allen cult. It shouldn't; I loved the film and give it my highest recommendation.
Sunday, September 10, 2006
Dir: Woody Allen (Crimes and Misdemeanors; Manhattan; Deconstructing Harry; Hannah and Her Sisters)
I have seen this film many times. It is screamingly funny, piercingly insightful, and above all groundbreaking in technique and storytelling. And yet, compared with some of the later Allen films that I have seen in the last year (see links above), this may be the first time I have seen Annie Hall and been somewhat underwhelmed. Now, this is relative; it went from best romantic comedy ever to just a really, really great film. But this viewing impressed on me the power of tradgedy (or at least more dramatic themes) to move an audience beyond that which more pure comedy can.
The star, far and away, is the script, so innovative in composition, device and storytelling. The asides, the use of irony and transperancy are all now pretty standard humor techniques. But Annie Hall pioneered them. Bergman's deconstruction of the medium is on diplay here, as Allen speaks directly to the audience and features the role of dramatic representation in the story line itself. Allen's acting is great, and Diane Keaton is certainly iconic (if overwrought) as Annie. But when Allen starts to narrate his feelings to passers-by on the street, asking them for advice about his relationship, it is easy to forget just how transgressive that is for a film. Allen is kitchen sinking the script with every device he can think of, and the product is a near perfect feat of writing.
This film was a springboard for Allen to more fully realize his vision in Manhattan, and throughout the 80's his films acheived some startling successes of observation of human relationships. Annie Hall is a transition film between the early screwball comedies and the more adult works to follow. It is the work of a genius, mind you, but a young one.
Saturday, September 09, 2006
Dir: Woddy Allen (Manhattan; Deconstructing Harry; Hannah and Her Sisters)
Allen interprets Crime and Punishment in this dark, funny, and brilliant film. Martin Landau has a dilemma when his mistress (Angelica Huston) becomes increasingly unstable. Meanwhile, Allen plays a jealous documentary maker who resents his brother-in-law's success as a producer of television drivel. Both story lines explore the underbelly of human behavior more directly that Allen had in the past, and the result is in many ways his most mature and profound work.
While Landau underwhelms in his performance, Huston more than makes up for it as the jilted and honest Dolores. We cannot help but simultaneously sympathize with and fear her, just as Landau's character feels guilt and yet yearns for her to just go away. His solution is obvious for those who know their literature. But it is Allen's attitude toward Landau's actions in the last third of the movie that makes Crimes and Misdemeanors so profound. At the end of the film, we are not sure whether Landau has committed the former or the latter.
That story line is contrasted with a heartbreaking little love story between Allen and Mia Farrow, with Alan Alda as the pompous nemesis to our awkward hero. Allen's Cliff Stern is shy and boyish in a way that many of his other characters were not, a quality that allows us to care about him more than the more cynical people he has played in the past. This plot takes its own, more ordinary dark turn. When Allen and Landau finally come together at the end of the film, the spectrum of bad deeds, and the connections between them, is brought to our attention in a very insightful way. It is an exhilirating moment.
This is clearly one of Allen's most learned scripts, with religious, philosophical and literary allusions and themes permeating the dialogue. While also very entertaining, Allen has several deep points to make here. The film is an important document, near the top of the man's catalogue. My highest recommendation.
Wednesday, September 06, 2006
Dir: Ron Underwood (City Slickers)
Dare I say it? Not as bad as I was lead to believe Eddie Murphy science fiction vehicle. Now, I'm not saying Pluto Nash is a good film, far from it. But I was expecting something to rival Battlefield: Earth in the badness category. The film's reputation comes from its box office (100 million to produce, 4.4 million US box office) and its infamous stint sitting on the studio shelf. But there are worse movies made very year in Hollywood, with just as many big time actors.
The faults do shine through, however. The script is obvious and leaden. The plot is pointless (I know, lets do a futuristic movie, but the plot will be the most formulaic mob story line we can think of). You could have done the same story in Tokyo or New York or Des Moines or Mars. And the twist at the end, incorporating cloning, is so laughably wrong on the science and behind the times on our understanding of that procedure that many people should have been fired for it. Pluto Nash actually goes to the old "which one is the good Eddie Murphy, I can't tell. Shoot him . . . No, shoot him!" well but without a trace of the irony that has made that device continually popular. This thing is hopeless as a story that it should by all rights have never been made.
And yet, Pluto Nash has redemptive elements. The set design reflects the budget, and it at least provides some interesting details and very slightly creative elements. I have always been a sucker for Murphy as an actor, and his screen presence is not objectionable. Rosario Dawson is actually not too bad (and beautiful). But Randy Quaid has a bad character and makes it worse, playing a robot like I did when I was six. And someone please stop giving Jay Mohr acting roles, please.
Actually, Pluto Nash fails on all accounts. It is a bad movie, but it is also not so bad that it is a fun movie. Its place in the honor roll of terrible films is underserved; that list should be for bad movies that are worth watching. This is just a regular bad movie, deserving a place with your average Cube Gooding Jr or Sharon Stone film.
Monday, August 28, 2006
Dir: Ron Underwood (Tremors; Mighty Joe Young; The Adventures of Pluto Nash; In the Mix)
Bruno Kirby has passed on. While a verteran character actor, it is undeniable he is best known for two roles in mass appeal comedies, When Harry Met Sally and this film. I was reminded that, while everyone saw City Slickers when it came out, I had not revisted the film for many years. What greeted me was an exceptional "feel good" film, intelligent and heart warming that showcases the abilities of actors like Kirby when given the room to act.
City Slickers was a lot more thoughtful that I remembered, and probably more than I could appreciate on first viewing. The emasculation of the Baby Boomers was a big deal back then, often directed in the "Angry White Man" syndrome portrayed in Falling Down. Nowadays, the pendulum has swung the other way toward the feminization of men in the "Metrosexual" movement. City Slickers bears the mark of a generation, raised in the safe envrions of the 50's, reaching mid-life and finding themselves trapped in family and middle management.
That backdrop provides the motivation for a good old-fashioned underdog story, pretty much a sports film forumla transferred to a Western setting. The script is by Babaloo Mandel and Lowell Ganz, a favorite team of mine responsible as well for A League of Their Own, Gung Ho, Night Shift, and the supremely funny Spies Like Us. City Slickers is their most accessible script, with an emotional range that brings in all kinds of various audiences. The catch phrase humor and one-liners is backed with emotional dialogue that may lack subtlty but undeniably accomplishes its goal. Underwood's incessant orchestral score, swelling on cue when men reveal their feelings to one another, tells us exactly what to fell and on what lines to feel it.
For a Western, the movie does feel strangely claustrophobic, failing to make full use of the vistas of Southern Colorado. The secondary characters accompanying our protagonists on the trail, the dentists, the ice cream moguls, and the lonely woman, are all completely superfluous, especially the young black dentist who teases that race will be an issue and then safely gets ignored for the rest of the film. A cutting room casuality for that story line, I wager.
The film rests entirely on four actors. Jack Palance took home a "lifetime acheivement" Oscar as Curly, a performance I admit didn't strike me as particularaly special after further review. He plays old and grizzled, which he is so it's no big deal. The writing carries the day there, a satisfyingly complex archetype of traditional masculinty. But a bunch of veteran actors could have done it just as well, believe it or not. Billy Crystal, never one of my favorite actors, has perfect comedic timing but little acting chops in my mind. He gets laughs and keeps scenes moving, but never delivers emotional impact.
The stand outs, both in writing and acting, are Daniel Stern and Kirby as Crystal's friends. Each is called on to fully develop a troubled character and work through real personal crises in the course of the film. Each embodies a particular aspect of the male persona, and the actors understand their roles. Stern has real talent, and Kirby plays out of type, supremely confident but with lots of pent up anger.
The script is very good at getting us to empathize with these characters, and then puts a real challenge in front of them. That sort of rooting interest is the bread and butter of the feel good movie, and I must admit that watching City Slickers made me feel good. It is genuinely funny, heartwarming if manipulative, but also intelligent and well thought out. This is the sort of film you watch with the folks on Thanksgiving, a movie that stands near the top of its genre.
Sunday, August 27, 2006
The "Road Movie" is a rather archetypical sort of movie. Motley assorted crew travels on a quest for some Sword or Ring or whatever and eventually through the process come to know that what really matters is not that object, but themselves and the differences and bonds they have shared through their journey and various and sundry misfortunes that befall them on the voyage.
It would be a stretch to say that many of the characters in this movie end up being closer as a result of their shared journey. Many of them still possess the same reflections and angers they possess at the beginning of the movie (many of them are, after all, quite deserved). But they do know themselves better and I think for this movie thats what is important, because the message it delivers interpersonally is so clearly about how to behave better as an individual, not how to force others to behave differently or to criticize them for doing so.
The conceit of the film is simple: Little Olive has managed to get into the finals of the regional Little Miss Sunshine contest, a beauty pageant for young girls. Because of a host of circumstances, the entire family must pile into an old VW touring van and head from New Mexico up to California. The cast of characters are Abigail Breslin as Olive, Greg Kinnear as Richard (a failing self-help guru), Toni Collete as Sheryl, the matriarch holding it all together, Steve Carell as Frank, a suicidal Proust scholar, Paul Dano as Dwayne, the son so smitten with German nihilism he does not speak, and Alan Arkin as Richard's father.
The acting in this film is pitch perfect. Really hilarious and well done stuff. Carell in particular is an absolute revelation. He takes the "aw shucks" sarcasm he used to great effect in The 40 Year Old Virgin and amplifies it with a sharper edge. Alan Arkin is pretty much the most hilarious grandpa of all time, with a totally dirty mind. But he also is the only character who really makes time to care for a develop a relationship with Olive.
Kinnear's self-help quack is not very likeable. He is always telling everyone right and wrong, but not in a fascist way. A good scene is where Richard tries to moralize about Olive ordering ice cream. He implies that eating ice cream will make you fat not by stating it outright but with a condescending syllogistic call and answer with Olive, who pushes her ice cream away afterwards. He is just a jerk and the worst kind, one who claims to have all the answers.
Sheryl and Dwayne are in some sense the more controlled character, resigned to the utter insanity that is the family. Sheryl is near a breaking point because she's worked the hardest to keep everything together and it still might not work. Dwayne hates his family like any good cinematic teenager. His refusal to speak because of a certain anti-semitic German philosopher is one of the film's most hilarious aspects.
I want to hold off (mostly) on being a pretentious grad student about this movie. I want to champion it for its simple pleasures. It was hilarious. It made me laugh a lot. The acting was superb. Every single Alan Arkin rant in this movie is worth the price of admission. The movie was also dealing with some seriously heavy material. Suicide, drug addiction and pedophilia are just three of the main topics of this film's conversation. Yet each one of them in some way will be made to be absolutely hilarious.
The only "academic" thought I have right now on the movie is this- like The Catcher in the Rye this is a text which attacks phonies. Like Nietzche it has no tolerance for people whose systems of morality or worldviews have unerringly corrupted their souls. The most intolerable characters in the movie are the ones who attempt to fit everything that occurs into their own little boxes of understanding, whether its Richard's self-help crap fest or an overly uptight registration attendant at the beauty pageant. I hesitate to say any more, because I really do not know my Nietzche, but the fact that dancing plays a strong role in combating the sinister social forces the drive uptight behavior seems to me to be clearly speaking to particular passages I had read once upon a time.
Do go see this movie. It will do you right.