Monday, August 31, 2009

The Ladykillers (2004)

The Ladykillers, 2004
Dir: Joel (and Ethan) Coen
August 28, 2009

I can say now that I have seen every feature that the Coens have made. It's been a pretty good ride; it's too bad that it ran out of gas with The Ladykillers. I think it's second nature to be wary of remakes, and this film really doesn't do anything to improve my feelings. I have never seen the original (1955), but anything with both Alec Guinness and Peter Sellers must be incredible. This remake isn't awful, it just really isn't a Coen Brothers film. They wrote the script, but were not supposed to direct. When Barry Sonnenfeld dropped out, they were offered the directing reins as well. I'm not really sure if they had some studio people watching their every move, but they tried to be subtle with their own personal touches and most of them just fall flat.

A merry band of criminals posing as musicians led by an eccentric southern dandy professor (Tom Hanks) hatch a plan to use the basement of an old lady (Irma P. Hall) to dig a tunnel straight to the store room of a steamboat casino and steal the loot. What follows is a comedy-of-errors, "ignorance is bliss" romp that is steeped in great atmosphere and mood but lacking in substance. The Deep South setting is used very well with both the main character's dialogues and some great gospel tunes which help to cover up some of the films many failings. The religious undertones and Christian metaphors (basement/evil, gargoyles and the trash island in the middle of the harbor/sea [heaven or hell?]) are a bit heavy handed, as are the E.A. Poe references, but you get the point. Changing Charon's ferry to a trash barge (because that's what the criminals basically are, duh) was actually the one clever thing that I really liked in the film.

The odd thing is that the most obviously glaring sore spot of the film is the writing. It's as if it was written by someone trying to ape the Coens' schtick but got really lazy. Maybe they were rushed, I don't know. But for guys who usually give lots of love to the support, they left them gimmicky. Sure they have weird things about them as usual, but that's about it. Marlon Wayans cat callin' big booty bitches and sayin' things like "damn skippy!" seems a bit hollow. And J.K Simmons's Garth Pancake has irritable bowel syndrome. Really? Fart jokes? The General (Tzi Ma) is alright, but Lump (Ryan Hurst) is just plain annoying. The professor, for his part, is laughably befuddling ("Madam, you are addressing a man who is quiet, yet not quiet, if I may offer a riddle?") and his sniveling laugh is just strange coming out of Hanks, so a decent job I think. Hall is good too, for her part, but a bit too demonstrative for her role, which should have her being way more daft. With writing, most of the time I would give the Coens the benefit of the doubt, but here you really can't. They know, and have proved, that they can do much better.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Inglourious Basterds

Inglorious Basterds, 2009
Dir: Quentin Tarantino
August 26, 2009

I must say that, while the proud tradition of really annoying Tarantino films flows strongly, Inglourious Basterds might be the most subdued and mature film he has made. You would not think that on the title of the film, or the trailer, but it is. A quick reflection after watching this will also probably remind you that, more than anything, Tarantino wants to be a writer, and that directing his own scripts is just something that he has to do. The lengthy dialogues, most of them in either German or French (it's basically a foreign language film) work nicely with the sporadic Tarantinoesque moments. Most people looking for a Pulp Fiction (1994) or a Kill Bill ('03 or '04) will probably be disappointed, because frankly, this has the feeling of a very European film.

It's funny that my last film was a Godard, because this film, despite the others having much in debt to French New Wave as well, is probably the biggest homage to him in the Tarantino canon. Even as the credits role, "A Band Apart," Tarantino's production company, proudly displays his affection for Godard. It also has a pays is debts to Spaghetti-Westerns and 70s B-movies, as all his films do, but you can't get away from the New Wave spirit that drives most of the film, which centers around the dialogue. A lieutenant in the US army, Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt), puts together a group of Jewish-American soldiers, in addition to some European Nazi haters, to go behind enemy lines and kill as many Nazis as possible. A parallel story line of revenge runs along this, of a young Jewish French girl (Mélanie Laurent) who, after escaping a "Jew Hunter" Nazi (Christoph Waltz) earlier in the film, finds the opportunity for her vengeance arrive when the Nazi high command decides to hold the exclusive premiere of a German propaganda film at her Paris cinema. And vengeance is had because all the big wigs show up.

There is some great acting, especially Waltz, who steals every scene he is in and is one cool customer. His opportunistic waffen-SS officer is always looking for something and sniffing it out, whether it's Jews hiding under the floor boards or a way to better his predicament. There are a lot of silly parts in the film, most of them pertaining to real people, like Hitler and Goebbels, but also a shadowy, curmudgeonly Churchill in one scene, as well as a wonky Mike Myers playing a British general as if he were a subdued Austin Powers. It kinda works. Eli Roth is way over the top as the Boston-born "Bear Jew," who wields a baseball bat to club Nazi skulls. His intensity in the final part of the film, however, is pretty impressive for a guy that is most definitely not an actor.

What Tarantino does well is create tension through dialogue, and this is best exemplified in the bar scene which last for about fifteen minutes, most of which is a heated exchange, full of subtle looks and empty space which only help enhance the conversations taking place. Of course, after an intense standoff where people point guns at each others nuts, the scene explodes. Where Tarantino has problems stem from the same problem that I have with Godard. Get the text off the screen. It is not cool. His use of flashbacks is random and uneven, and some of the Basterds get lost by the wayside. There was nothing particularly striking about the photography; slo-mo works sometimes (it's not 300 at least), a few nice wide shots, but that's not Tarantino's forte, so it's really pointless to talk about.

It's kind of incredible that Tarantino has basically reworked his "revenge saga" a bunch of different times. Is he still that interested in it? I guess so. Maybe it just allows him to make a film that another plot device wouldn't. His femme fatale stories (Jackie Brown (1997) and Kill Bill) tie in nicely to make my point (for the Laurent character anyway). The funniest part of the whole thing was definitely leaving the theater and hearing dumb asses say, "Didn't Hitler die in the bunker? That was stupid." But isn't Hitler getting pumped full of lead by a extremely hateful Jew more satisfying? The revenge fantasy was fun. Good, not great. Better than Death Proof (2007), at least (probably Kill Bill too).

Inglourious Basterds Photo

Friday, August 21, 2009

Une femme mariée

Une femme mariée: Suite de fragments d'un film tourné en 1964 (A Married Woman), 1964
Dir: Jean-Luc Godard
August 20, 2009

Godard has turned the tables in this film, one of the least seen of his earlyish output, where before he had restless men skulking about Paris, here he has a wandering married woman moving between her pilot husband and her actor lover, making promises and professing love to both but unable to choose until she is forced to.

Godard gives us little vignettes (these "fragments of a film") of Charlotte (Macha Méril) lounging about with her two lovers (Bernard Noël and Philippe Leroy), some 30 seconds long, some ten minutes, all of them fading to black and then fading back in. Lots of close-ups; many of them of Charlotte's legs and torso, with hands all over her. Some of these hands have a ring on them, some of them do not. Godard himself narrates at points, in his fashion, and of course there are many references to the cinematic and literary figures who have influenced his work. These little pieces really have no narrative flow, but they work in their own way, but later on Godard moves on to a series of documentary (or cinéma vérité, I guess) style interviews with the husband, his young son, and film-maker Roger Leenhardt, which are broken up by Godard's typically infuriating title cards, and the whole series just bust up any type of flow the film might have had. I'm sure this is exactly what Godard wanted though. In another scene at a pool, Charlotte overhears two girls talking (about girl things, ya' know), where Godard again busts out his voice-over and the text on film, which is just not my jambox. He also uses some negatives here too. I can't really say for sure if these things truly show my dislike for most of post-modern cinema, but all I know is that it seems slightly forced. I know it works for others, clearly, but there is just something about it that niggles me. Sometimes I want to use the word pompous, but I hate using that word when applied to film. Why would anyone want to make a film that no one wants to see, or is going to be immediately miffed by? Godard is not pompous, in my opinion, just...flamboyant sometimes, I guess. There is one shot however, where Charlotte is driving in a convertible with the actor, where she is sitting really low in her seat trying to not be seen (hiding from who though?). The camera is right behind the car as they drive along the Seine, with the Eiffel Tower filling up half the frame and gradually getting bigger as they skid along. It's pretty awesome.

Trying to dig out what Godard is saying about love, or anything for that matter, can sometimes be a chore, and here it is no different. Love is just a charade; a word we use to justify our relationships? Or maybe she really does love both of them. Charlotte certainly throws "love" around a lot, but it's what the men she's with want to hear. It's her way of keeping them happy as she tries to figure herself out. Her roaming nature seems quite well expressed by her travel in Paris, where she changes taxis frequently, as if trying to hide her actions from suspicious eyes. As the film moves along, she indulges in some verbose soliloquies about herself and her feelings ("I have no will power.") Love, while seeming like a big part of the film at first, by the end seems just a pretext.

I think the more interesting thing about the film is that instead of a straightforward story about adultery, which this can seem like, it puts a microscope on the consumer culture of the 60s. Like the way Godard is interested in the way that cinema shapes our lives, here he puts forward the way in which the media and popular culture influence Charlotte and her actions. It seems strange at first viewing, when you see all of the advertisements, magazines, record sleeves and films stream through, as if randomly, but it's all very deliberate, as is the way she reacts to them, like her tedious talks and thoughts about boobs and bras ("perfect bust"). All of this takes us back to the earlier vignettes, where fetishistic images of her body remind us of the advertisements that are constantly being bombarded at Charlotte.

It's difficult to say if all of those things truly inform all of Charlotte's actions, but they certainly tell us a lot about what it is like to live in this modern age. While I clearly have problems with Godard's...presentation in some of his films, it is impossible to watch one of his films and not know that he is buzzing with ideas, like a fragmented narrative to coincide with a fragmented life. His study of modern life, the restless struggle we all face, is felt in a melancholy undertone that is in a lot of his films, and I think is the greatest thing he ever achieved. Une femme mariée clearly sets out to do what it wants to, which is show us what it must have been like for a young French woman to be alive in the summer of 1964.

a married woman

Thursday, August 20, 2009

The Hidden Fortress

Kakushi toride no san akunin (The Hidden Fortress), 1958
Dir: Akira Kurosawa
August 18, 2009

From all of the the Kurosawa that I've seen, this is as probably the closest to pure comedy he gets. That's not to say that this is bad, or that it's strictly a comedy, but that's the type of Samurai epic that you are getting with The Hidden Fortress.
A general (Toshirō Mifune) and a princess (Misa Uehara) must dodge enemy clans while smuggling the royal treasure out of hostile territory with two bumbling, conniving peasants (Minoru Chiaki and Kamatari Fujiwara) at their sides.

his blockbuster samurai adventure is made all the more memorable for those buffoonish peasant sidekicks, who not only steal the film from Mifune and his swagger, but nearly upstage their visionary director and his studied use of wide-screen photography for the first time. Of course that's impossible; utilizing the studio's newfangled “Toho-scope”, Kurosawa was able to fill his stretched frame with planes of action and nature's natural clutter, reserving close-ups, apart from his usual picky telephoto decisions, for the more dramatic moments between Mifune, the princess, and rival general/friend Susumu Fujita. Scenes of the fire festival are especially great, as is the the the scene where Mifune rides down two soldiers, and then proceeds to the always mandatory samurai duel, this time with spears.

But for all the brilliant film making theatrics, the conventional plot wouldn't be as entertaining without our entry into the action, through Chiaki and Fujiwara's bickering peasants, who are separated by a slave trade just long enough to learn of a stash of gold pieces hidden throughout the land in tree branches, a wonderfully hilarious device to represent the film's themes of nobility and heroism over self and greed. With this Kurosawa bridged the gap between sweeping action symbolism (Seven Samurai (1954)), heady literary action (Throne of Blood (1957)) and westernized ironic action (Yojimbo (1961)), proving yet again to be one of the most malleable cinematic craftsmen in the world.

Film Still

Saturday, August 15, 2009

The Goods: Live Hard. Sell Hard.

The Goods: Live Hard. Sell Hard., 2009
Dir: Neal Brennan
August 15, 2009

It's hard to think about a 90 minute movie being to long, but this is a prime example of that. When campy and over-the-top, there were some really funny bits. Lots of really unfunny shit though (like the boy band tripe) too. Movies like this don't need to make that much sense (low-brow), and things like "sentiment" and "resolution" just muddle everything up. I want to see something retardedly funny, not some mushy romantic bullshit.

Don Ready (Jeremy Piven) is the "Goods." A "gun for hire" car salesman called in for dealerships having trouble selling. There's some other stuff your supposed to care about, but you won't. The first part of Will Farrell's cameo is nevertheless very funny, because it comes out of nowhere. The second part, later in the film, was not funny at all because it was tied into Ready's "conflict." Yeah, I know how movies are supposed to play out. But I can't help but wonder if the normal structure a film is supposed to be ruins the laughs and flow of a movie like this. Maybe when they had to get a little serious, the writers just got shoddy.

Anyway, as a comedy that falls in the "Will Farrell" category (as opposed to a Judd Apatow comedy, the only two kinds that seem to be green-lit these days), this sucks.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

The General

The General, 1926
Dir: Buster Keaton
August 12, 2009

I really wanted to know what the big deal was about this film, having seen a lot of silent comedies but never getting around to this one for some reason. So after watching it, all I can say, is that it is definitely worth the fuss. Rejected by the Confederate army as unfit and taken for a coward by his beloved Annabelle Lee (Marian Mack), young Johnnie Gray (Keaton) sets out to single-handedly win the war with the help of his cherished locomotive. What follows is, without exaggeration, probably the most cleverly choreographed comedy ever recorded on celluloid. Johnnie wages war against hijackers, an errant cannon, and the unpredictable hand of fate while roaring along the iron rails.

One of the most amazing things in the film occurs when Buster sits on one of the side rods of the train, which connect the drivers of the locomotive (thanks wikipedia!). The train starts gently and gradually picks up speed as it enters a shed. The visual effect of the forlorn Buster as the motion of the side rod moves him gently up and down is very poignant, and also one of the greatest things I have ever seen captured on film. My jaw rarely drops when I watch a film, but this was just crazy. Had they done anything wrong, he probably would have died. Another amazing thing he shot was the bridge collapse near the end, with an actual locomotive moving across it. Apparently he did not tell the actor playing a Union general that this was going to happen, and the look of terror and shock on his face is truly genuine. That's fucking genius.

The plot is a little standard, but it can be overlooked for the great score and hilarious physical comedy, and seriously, it is visually stunning at some points. Keaton seems to me the superb craftsman of silent comedy. Chaplin may have been the more nakedly emotional genius, but Keaton was more interested in the medium of film itself, as you can tell by the way this film is shot, which is way more interesting than anything Chaplin ever did. Insisting on accuracy in every detail, Keaton created a remarkably authentic historical epic, replete with hundreds of costumed extras and full-scale sets. I just read that he studied all of those famous Matthew Brady Civil War photographs before he shot this and his visual aesthetic was based on that. You can really tell that too, because no one else shot war scenes at this point like Keaton.

Pushing the limits of his body and the limits of stunts of the time, Keaton creates a sublimely funny and at times frankly astounding tour-de-force of physical comedy and slapstick sequences. Everything that is done in the film is done on the day, without the help of elaborate camera tricks, and the sheer audacity of Keaton's drive to find the funniest set piece is breathtaking to behold. Possibly the classic silent comedy.

Film Still

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Funny People

Funny People, 2009
Dir: Judd Apatow
August 11, 2009

I'm glad that Judd Apatow made this movie. I'm glad he's working on a comedic American aesthetic that is based on morals yet still gets caught up in the vulgar culture that we all must deal with. I'm glad this film wasn't like 40 Year Old Virgin (2005) or Knocked Up (2007). However, the film was too long (and I rarely say that), and despite the mentoring relationship that George (Adam Sandler, who is really quite good) and Ira (Seth Rogen) forge by the end, I'm not really quite sure what the film was supposed to be about, and what I was supposed to take away from it.

If the the film was about how hard it is to make it as a comic without help and how much having a mentor really benefits you, then maybe Ira should've been the main character. As it is, with George being in the spotlight, the themes of redemption and second chances get lost in a ending which doesn't really correlate with all of the problems that George had. George has everything as a successful comedian/movie star, but when he finds out that he is terminally ill, he tries to turn his life around. He starts doing stand-up again, and at a L.A. comedy club he meets Ira, a struggling young comic looking for a break. George lets Ira write jokes for him and then lets him become his assistant, and their strange friendship starts to grow. Over time, George realizes that he is better, and a relationship that he rekindled with an ex-girlfriend (Leslie Mann) starts to progress despite her having a wonky Australian husband (Eric Bana, still mostly sucking).

There were so many superfluous things in this film that just didn't need to be in it. All of Ira's roommates, despite having some of the funniest moments in the film, could have been left out, along with Ira's love interest. The whole feel of the film dragging on too long is kind of like a bad stand-up routine that also doesn't know when to quit. Maybe that's what it's supposed to be like. Are comics' life supposed to be miserable, and that's how they get all their "hilarious" material? Life can give and take, is that what this is all about? Is this Apatow's stab at making a "film-makers" film? Maybe. All I know is that this is one train wreck of a movie that should probably be seen. What you make of it is debatable.

Intolerable Cruelty

Intolerable Cruelty, 2003
Dir: Joel Coen (and Ethan Coen)
August 10, 2009

It's pretty obvious that once you see the credits start to roll at the end of the movie, and you see a bunch of other dudes' names tacked on to the end of the screenwriting credits other than Joel and Ethan, you realize that the script might have been "doctored" up a bit to be more viewer-friendly. It's not a solid film by any means, but I'm pretty sure I don't hate it; in fact I found myself really enjoying a lot of it. A film bookended by Geoffrey Rush playing a bizarro pony-tailed Australian douche TV producer can't be all that bad.

So Hollywood wanted the Coens' to make a romantic comedy, a real doozy "battle-of-the-sexes" with stars that will fill the seats, or did the Coens convince them to let them make this? Whatever the circumstance, they can't really help themselves in turning it into a black comedy. The most prominent divorce lawyer in the country, Miles Massey (George Clooney), gets enamored with the scheming wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones) of a wealthy real estate magnate (Edward Herrmann). When he helps the magnate keep all of his money in trial, leaving the wife with nothing, she plots revenge. Honestly, the first half of this movie has a breezy pace, is filled with enough clever dialogue and has enough weird "Coen" moments that I thought I was going to give this a positive review, but the time jump and the ending certainly make this film a mixed bag.

The Coens' leave their technical flair at home and seem to be more interested in the characters and dialogue, which has it's moments, to be sure. The acting is pretty stellar as well, and even CZJ is tolerable. Clooney's eccentric lawyer has strange enough lines and tendencies to appreciate, and mot of the supporting cast lends a pretty good helping hand, especially Billy Bob Thornton as a moronic oil baron. However, I'm still not quite sure why Cedric the Entertainer is in the film. The whole film trashes all over Los Angeles and the culture that thrives there, which the Coens' also did in Barton Fink (1991), but the "happily-ever-after" ending seems at odds with that and all the Coens' stand for, and the general thesis of the film is full of Hollywood bullshit. I dunno, the film is just too inconsistent, and not in a good way. A Coen Brothers film, no doubt, but a poor copy.