Saturday, May 18, 2013
Three Burials represents a series of bests for those involved in it: Tommy Lee Jones gives arguably his finest performance, Barry Pepper gets to take full advantage of his astonishing face and therefore gives his best work, and Guillermo Arriaga, a daring but frustrating screenwriter (he's the man of twisty narratives and multiple story lines as in 21 Grams, Amoros Perros, and Babel), offers easily his best piece of writing. A modern Western seasoned with with plenty of McCarthy, Faulkner, and Peckinpah, Three Burials is wonderfully atmospheric and alive, but one of the reasons it works so well is because of how the material is handled. Jones is also directing the film, and I imagine if he felt like it he could direct a hundred more really good Westerns. He knows how to tell these types of stories, how they should look and feel. Luckily, he's got a script from Arriaga that's fairly linear and focused. There are a few flashbacks, but they're well placed and integral to the story, and he only uses multiple story lines for the first third before all the characters come together for the rest of the film. The movie is startlingly intelligent, a deft, tightly packed examination of honor. The amazing thing though is that Arriaga strays away from portentous dialogue. Most of the conversation is either for advancing the plot or to demonstrate feelings of anger or happiness or pain in the characters. I loved it. Also, great Levon Helm performance here, too.
Wednesday, May 15, 2013
Down By Law. A-
Love him or hate him, Down By Law is still a pretty damn awesome regardless of the presence of Roberto Benigni. I generally can't stand the Italian funny man, and found him only slightly more tolerable here than usual. But the rest of the movie, the triptych story structure, Jim Jarmusch's amazing dialogue, the Tom Waits performance, the soundtrack, are all outstanding. Down By Law does something that hadn't been done before and hasn't since its 1986 release. It starts out as a piece of dark urban realism, then becomes a prison movie, and then smoothly transforms into a 1940s-style screwball comedy. And yet because of the way Jarmusch develops these characters, we never feel as if the different parts don't fit. Rather than contriving a silly three-part narrative, Jarmusch jumps around based on logical results. Benigni, while certainly adding life to the film, gets too much attention that could otherwise have been devoted to making the movie slightly more sophisticated than it ultimately is. Still, Down By Law is a vital piece of 80s Independent film, a black & white chatter box that's as watchable as anything you'll likely ever see.
Monday, May 6, 2013
Lola Montes. B
To be disappointed by Lola Montes is to feel that the film comes up short in the category of compelling dramatic content. But no one walks away from Max Ophuls' last film and says it's boring to look at. Along with some of the Powell/Pressburger pictures, Lola Montes ranks at the top of the pre-1960s color spectacles. Ophuls, one of the great visual stylists of the cinema, defies conventional camera and shot arrangements and mainly keeps his lens at a distance. The film consists almost entirely of medium and long shots, as Ophuls' camera follows the action, presumably to allow the viewer to take in as much of the sets and landscapes as possible. Vibrant colors are found everywhere, from the circus in which Montes performs, to the costume design, to the buildings, to stunning snowfall. The scenes in the circus are amazing cinematic feats; when Ophuls flashes back to show us bits of Montes' life, we almost feel as if we are looking at a Norman Rockwall painting (stylistically, of course). And yet the movie could have been a better one if Montes' were presented as a more interesting person. She's largely devoid of any interesting characteristics, and as played by Martine Carol, she comes across as rather insipid. I hate to say this about a Max Ophuls film, but this one is a little like one of those modern big budget Hollywood movies where people say "it's all style, no substance." Then again, perhaps that's precisely what Ophuls wanted. A film to visually represent a legendary, extravagant performer whose heart was as empty as this movie's is.
Saturday, May 4, 2013
Les Dames Du Bois Boulogne. A-
Early Bresson doesn't amount to much in that by his third feature (Diary of a Country Priest) he had already pretty much set in stone how he was going to make movies. But still early Bresson does still mean Les Dames Du Bois Boulogne, a film that's quite different than anything else he ever made. For starters, he's using professional actors, including the famed French theater actress Maria Casares. Also, he's operating entirely within the modern city, as opposed to the rural towns in which he often set his later work (most notably Hasard Balthazar, Diary of a Country Priest, and Mouchette). Most importantly though is that this has a very distinct plot that the movie is built around. Typically with Bresson you have stories that can't be told, but only experienced. With this film, however, you could tell someone about it and they would get it. Anyone who's seen Bresson's later work probably can't quite understand what they are seeing even after multiple viewings. Les Dames, however, is a fairly easy picture to grasp and understand. Casares plays Helene, who learns her supposed true love decides he wants to look elsewhere for romance and plots revenge against him. The way she crafts her plot is reminiscent of some of the best Shakespeare plays in which characters construct elaborate plans of revenge. And because of that the film is fairly straightforward, yet no less thematically complex because of it. It's a film about our obsession with our own happiness, about serving others to really serve our own desires. I've stressed how different this is from Bresson's other work, but there is still a major similarity: he doesn't take sides with any one character. A broad theme running through his films is that things are complicated. He got that from the beginning.
Tuesday, April 30, 2013
The Spirit of the Beehive. A-
A pretty legendary piece of Spanish cinema, The Spirit of the Beehive plays like traditional neo-realism and pre-Miyazaki simultaneously. Much of the film presents the fairly typical life of a young girl just after the Francois victory during the Spanish Civil War. We see her in school, at dinner with her family, roughhousing with her older sister, pretending to use soap as shaving cream. But then there's this incredible, haunting, mysterious tone to the movie as well, which starts at the beginning when a mobile cinema rolls into town and shows the original 1931 Frankenstein. The girl, about six, is mesmerized by it, but also haunted and confused by the infamous scene in which the monster drowns the child into the river. From then on she experiences the world a little differently, inspired to see it as only children can-or as can only be seen in a movie. So rather than run scared when a soldier appears in her secret sheepfold hideout, she feeds him. She wanders into the woods one night and imagines the monster from the film comes up besides her. We don't get much of what's going on outside the girl's world. We see her father working with the beehives, which are fascinating to see, and we get glimpses of the mother lying in bed or writing at her desk. Yet we don't see much interaction between the parents probably because the girl herself doesn't. Like Forbidden Games or any Miyazaki film, The Spirit of the Beehive embraces the strange qualities of childhood. What's especially great about it is how unsentimental it is. It's largely a movie about images and facial reactions to them. Most of the time we must guess what the girl is thinking. But I think my favorite thing is that here is a young child sees a horror movie and is inspired to see the world differently because of it rather than have nightmares about it and try to forget its terrifying effect.
Thursday, April 25, 2013
In some ways I can understand how some might feel Frankenweenie isn't quite the throwback piece of Tim Burton most critics hailed it to be. Yet it's so much closer than most of what he's been making of late that I'll take this and embrace it, its flaws aside. And in truth, I'm not sure if the old Tim Burton can return. His signature visual style has become almost a gimmick, with big studios embracing it. Can Burton get out of this major studio system? Does he want to, and more importantly, will the studios let him? Frankenweenie was Burton's first original idea in years, and yet it performed dismally at the box office. It's a bit creepy and strange, yet quite mild compared to the PG Pee Wee's Big Adventure and Beetlejuice. Those are classic Burton films that I personally don't see the likes of getting put in the mainstream today. Still, as I said, I'll take what I can get. Frankenweenie is quite entertaining, funny, and sad, three adjectives that the movie mostly earns. Only a few times did I feel like the film was getting self-consciously Burton (that is to say, moments in which Burton kept things weird but didn't actually go anywhere new. i.e. the hunchbacked kid). For the most part it moves at a nice slow pace and focuses entirely on childhood life and dogs and science experiments. Those who find the ending rather bombastic should note that before that final twenty minutes this a very slow moving film. Not only did Disney probably demand some climactic action, but the story actually needs it. As for the references, well, they're hidden enough as to not appear too obvious, with the exception of the windmill scene at the end.
Tuesday, April 23, 2013
That's My Boy. F
I sat down to That's My Boy, the Adam Sandler comedy that was released in theaters last June. I'm not quite sure why I did. After all, there was hardly a kind word said about, and most the films critics didn't think it was just stupid, but morally offensive. Maybe I wanted to see how far Adam Sandler could fall in his ongoing descent into movie hell. Or perhaps I just wanted to enjoy a really terrible film-people do that, and often have a good time. In any case, That's My Boy is indeed wretched, an assault on moral decency and the kind of film Roger Ebert reserved for his zero-star ratings. This is not a comedy to watch with the family, even older members. I can't imagine thick-skinned viewers not getting uncomfortable with it. Out of curiosity I sought out an Adam Sandler interview for the film and noticed he seemed very withdrawn, even embarrassed, mentioning that he didn't want his kids to to see it, or anyone at that matter. I can respect someone for saying that, but how can I respect them for creating the need to say it in the first place?
Saturday, April 20, 2013
The Beach. C-
With Trance now in theaters, I was reminded once again that there are still some Danny Boyle movies out there I haven't seen yet. I decided to cut one off the list and sat down to The Beach. It may very well be his worst film. Not only that, but it's one of the worst island movies I've seen, taking all the dull things that can go on when a bunch of people are living on one and making them even more boring. For example, there are three young adults, Leonardo DiCaprio's Richard and a male-female French duo who figure out there's an exotic island and make there way there to pursue a life of pleasure. From the beginning it's clear Richard has an eye for the French girl, and perhaps she for him as well. The film follows through with these hints and obvious as it may be, a love triangle forms. But then it looses interest in this and and stalls any kind of romantic developments. The problem is Boyle keeps jumping around from one plot line to another, but showing no care or discipline in the handling of them. Another example is when one islander gets seriously wounded in a shark attack and spoils the fun for everyone else by his constant outbursts of extreme pain. Richard, who narrates the film, comments that on the island whenever someone is hurt they either need to get better right away so the good life can go on, or they need to die so they'll just be forgotten about. Thus, they take the man out into the middle of nowhere, put him in a tent to die, and are then able to shut him from their memory and go on with their utopian lifestyle. This is an incredibly morally serious action, and one that could have been explored inn great depth. Sure, the film show's intelligence by bringing the scenario about, but then it forgets it and moves on to something else. And before you know the movie's over and you really do feel like you've just seen nothing at all.
Saturday, April 13, 2013
Joy Ride. B+
If you thought Super 8 was J.J. Abrams' first attempt at channeling Steven Spielberg, think again. There is a little mostly forgotten thriller released back in 2001 called Joy Ride co-written by Abrams that clearly is inspired by Spielberg's debut feature, Duel. The movie tells the story of two traveling brothers (a typically lousy Paul Walker and a typically fun Steve Zahn) whose prank on a truck driver goes too far and are then relentlessly pursued by him. I haven't done the research, but I imagine Abrams had a lot to do with the script and had Duel in mind while he wrote it. But like Super 8, Abrams is such a good storyteller that any Spielberg emulations never come across as cheap inspiration. This is highly entertaining thriller that gives us good, well-developed characters and offers a number of quite terrifying sequences. It's all pure craft in the highest order. You finish it and think wow, Abrams and director John Dahl sure know how to make a movie.
Tuesday, April 9, 2013
The Fountainhead. B
The Fountainhead is a pretty entertaining 1949 melodrama with an interesting director, King Vidor (The Crowd, Duel in the Sun), a fun cast in Gary Cooper and Patricia Neal, and some interesting social commentary despite the utter blatancy of its presentation. The latter aspect is due to the fact that this material is coming from an Ayn Rand novel and that she also penned the screenplay. The heavy-handed nature of the story is somewhat fitting though, in that it uses the grand, majestic world of architecture to deliver on its individualistic agenda. Cooper plays Howard Roark, an talented architect who spends the entire film battling collectivists to have absolute creative license on his building designs. I haven't read Rand's novel and now that I hear the film tames down its pretensions I don't think I could ever manage to.