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Monthly Archives: August 2009

new_york_new_york_ver1Martin Scorsese’s “New York, New York” is without a doubt one of the worst movies ever made by a brilliant filmmaker.  Awful, excruciating, endless, unpleasant and nearly unendurable, it sets a special low point for filmmaking few could ever hope to achieve.  Scorsese smashes together the overblown style of Old Hollywood musicals with his love of detestable ingrates played by Robert De Niro.  De Niro recycles his intense and destructive persona from other Scorsese works here and the effect is so off putting it makes watching “New York, New York” feel like getting punched in the face for nearly 3 hours.  The counterbalance to De Niro’s endless brutality is Liza Minnelli as his milquetoast wife.  Their pairing results in what can only be called anti-chemistry.  He walks through the whole movie looking as if he wants to beat her with a coat hanger while she cowers in fear.  It’s disgusting.

Undisciplined and unending, the film is not merely made up of awkward and uncomfortable scenes, they also run well past any reasonable length.  The very first meeting between De Niro and Minnelli feels so protracted and unsettling one is tempted to end the experience right then and there, but it simply serves as foreshadowing for the entire movie.  It’s also hopelessly padded out with endless jazz sessions and musical interludes.  Without the endless big band worshiping Scorsese could”ve shaved 40 minutes off his epic fail.  One wished Scorsese had just stayed home and listened to the records he clearly cherishes so much.

“New York, New York” is considered one of the great failures by a film genius and no amount of revisionist insight is going to change that.  It’s a horrible, horrible, horrible movie.  One I never hope to see any frame of ever again.

500DaysPosterThe romantic comedy.  It’s probably the oldest genre of movie and possibly the simplest.  Boy meets girl, boy and girl like each other, or in some cases don’t, boy and girl overcome obstacles, boy and girl end up kissing in last scene, fin.  But this simple and once charming formula as it exists today is a complete and utter oxymoron.  There is absolutely nothing romantic about most current romantic comedies, nor anything resembling humor.  The majority of the genre has become a toxic barrel of trite, radioactive garbage.  Names like Heigl, Bullock, McCounghey or, God forbid, Hudson, have polluted these once fertile waters with their insipid personalities.  So it’s nice to occasionally run into one that doesn’t make you want to vomit your guts all over the poor bastard sitting in front of you.  Such a film is the breezy “500 Days of Summer.”  A romantic comedy that doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but injects enough pleasantness and ingenuity to make the effort a worthwhile one.

I was going to write more about this movie but I’m tired now becasue I just finished watching the attrocious spectacle that was “New York, New York”.  “500” is a nice little movie.  It’s cute without being coy and gross.  Go see it.  Now, about that “New York” movie.

burmese-harp

“The Burmese Harp” is one of the great examples of downbeat, heart breaking, sad bastard cinema.  Few films so encapsulate the feelings of post-war despondency.  After the thrill of glory seeking is over war leaves little more than a pile of broken men and dead bodies.  As much is clearly expressed by “The Burmese Harp”.

A platoon of musically inclined WWII Japanese soldiers are trouncing through the forest of Burma, eeking out survival.  In a sequence demonstrating the all encompassing power of music, the men learn that the war is over and that their fight is done.  They are crushed.  Their most valued soldier and comrade, the diligent in spirit harp player, is sent on one final mission to talk down a regiment of suicidal soldiers who refuse to surrender to the British.  Though he tries to save the delusional platoon from destruction he can’t talk them down and is almost killed himself.  Thus his engrossing odyssey begins.  The harp player crosses the terrain of Burma impersonating a monk, quickly learning that the bodies of his fallen comrades pepper the land, unburied and rotting.  Though his platoon hopes and prays for his return, he can’t bring himself to rejoin them.  He’s been changed at his soul’s most base level and he must fulfill a new, unsettling mission in life.

There’s little argument to make against “Harp” as quintessential, fundamentally perfect, cinema.  Every note of it borders on heartbreaking.  Filmed without a misstep by Kon Ichikawa, it easily rivals, and surpasses emotionally, the best works of Kurosawa.  Kurosawa made scores of masterpieces, but few hit the consistent, emotional gut punch that “Harp” hits.  Ichikawa is virtually unknown in this country and I hope Criterion can fix that.  Should any of his other work come remotely close to “Harp”, the results would be greatly appreciated.  I have no problem or hesitation calling “The Burmese Harp” one of the great, unparalleled pieces of pure cinema.

The last scene of Akira Kurosawa’s classic “The Seven Samurai” is used again for the Chuck Norris opus “The Delta Force.”

missing

“Missing” is a taut political thriller from director Costa-Gavras.  It’s about the disappearance of American Charles Horman (John Shea) in Chile after a military coup topples the government and leaves the nation in a violent conflict.  People routinely get executed on the street while hundreds of others simply vanish.  Horman’s wife (Sissy Spacek) begins a frantic search for his whereabouts while soliciting help from her none-to-pleased father-in-law (Jack Lemmon).

The film follows the true life case of the Horman’s and their ordeal with the Chilean and American governments.  The Horman’s were given numerous excuses and delays pertaining to Charles Horman’s whereabouts.  Primarily the film is about Lemmon and Spacek’s characters trying to deal with one another and their inherent distrust of the other.  He’s a button downed, Christian Science follower who believes his son and wife to be little more than drifting bohemians.  He can’t stand their rejection of the American way of life.  Spacek resents his demeaning and close minded nature and tries to open his eyes to who his son really is and what they hope to accomplish by living the way they do.  The relationship here is an uncommon one and the dynamics of it are both gradual and compelling.  It’s a worthy movie in many ways.  While numerous dramas from the 80’s have taken on an air of the dated, “Missing” still feels relevant and compelling.

final countdown

What a waste.  For reasons I can’t fathom “The Final Countdown” is a minor cult classic.  The setup is a classic and it should’ve been an exceptional movie.  A fully armed and operational aircraft carrier from 1980 encounters a freak storm and winds up back in time, right as the Japanese are about to attack Pearl Harbor.  The carrier can easily wipe out the Japanese attack force and save thousands of American lives.  But should they alter the course of history to do so?  That’s as far as things get in the movie itself.  It spends most of its runtime making its characters run around asking ‘What’s happening?’  Martin Sheen and Kirk Douglas play second fiddle to endless montages of airplanes and bombs.  It feels more like a Navy/Air Force recruitment film than a credible piece of alternative history/science fiction.  Not only is the entire thing underwritten and dull, it has a piss poor ending that renders the entire movie pointless.  This is one case where a remake in the hands of an enthusiastic creative team would be welcomed.  Hell, the poster to the side is cooler than anything in the film itself.

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I really enjoy “Inglorious Basterds.”  I know that’s a banal way to start a review but I just wanted that said upfront.  I think it’s an engrossing, unwieldy, beautiful mess of a movie.  It’s a film that’s ripe with things to bitch about, but overcomes its unevenness with solid payoffs and a devil may care finale.  I believe that those who dismiss or reject it outright at first may find themselves reexamining it later.  It feels like 3 movies playing around each other and we’re catching bits and pieces of each one that in the end form a Frankenstein styled whole.  What’s the biggest thing working against “Inglorious Basterds” and leading me to believe people may give a sideways glance and walk away with a shrug?  Its title and its previews. The name and marketing say this movie is about one thing and one thing only, Brad Pitt tearing ass around France with a team of avenging Jews, scalping Nazi’s and loving every minute of it.  That’s only a fraction of the story and I think some part of the audience will find itself let down that more skull bashing isn’t contained within its frames.  I was glad that there was more to the story.

“Basterds” begins with “Once Upon A Time…” on the screen.  When an audience encounters this intro we inherently expect some kind of fairy tale to unfold before us.  It’s a phrase that invokes thoughts of princesses, ogres and prince charming.  “Basterds” has none of that but a fairy tale it is.  Though it is a World War II movie, historical accuracy is not what Tarantino has assembled us for.   His film begins with two exceptional sequences of dialogue, suspense and brutality.  The first involves Nazi Col. Landa, milk appreciator, sniffing out Jews hiding in the home of French sympathizers.  After this we meet Pitt, his Basterds and see what they do to Nazis.  A baseball bat hasn’t been so intimidating since De Niro in “The Untouchables.”  These gripping opening sequences set a pace that the film doesn’t follow through with.  After we’re introduced to the Basterds and the scene stealing Landa, the real meat of the movie begins.  “Basterds” eases into the multi-faceted story of Shosanna, a Jew hiding in Paris running a movie theater, the Jew hunting Landa who killed Shosanna’s family, Frederick Zoller, a movie loving, Nazi hero whose adoration for Shosanna goes unrequited, and topping it all off is an English hatched plot to blow up Hitler at a movie premiere taking place at Shosanna’s movie palace.  Pitt, his Basterds and their scalp count take a back seat until the end of the movie, popping up only occasionally.  It’s essentially like a lot of Tarantino’s work, except no one told the audience to expect any of this

All of these tales run along each other in chapter like fashion, ala “Kill Bill”, most being successful.  Tarantino’s inclination towards being undisciplined and unwieldy with dialogue is in full force here.  In the past when Tarantino did this, it often left his movie at a standstill.  Parts of “Death Proof” are almost unbearable because of his love for his own masturbatory dialogue.  Here the scenes in which he’s indulged himself the most feel more well rounded and with an overall purpose.  They may be long, almost mini-movies, and they may carry a whiff of the unnecessary, but they all come with a payoff that justifies their length.  He has a story to tell and he’s decided to tell it in his own prolonged way, the audience will simply have to deal with it.  It was during these prolonged moments that I felt the surrounding movie goers might turn against “Basterds.”  “Too much chit chat! Not enough scalping!”  But I also kept in mind the old movie adage, “Wow them in the end.”  I figured Tarantino planned to counter this possibility of growing audience apathy with a wildly explosive ending and he didn’t disappoint.  More on that later.  The only part of “Basterds” that feels somewhat flat for me is the part of Frederick Zoller, Shosanna’s Nazi admirer.  Though it culminates in a beautiful sequence ripe with stunning imagery and tragedy, the majority of their interplay fails to propel the story in any compelling way.  He adores, she rejects, rinse, repeat.  Tarantino may have served himself better by cutting back on this material and letting the stronger elements dominate.  A few less scenes with Zoller and a few more with the Basterds may have been wise.

The performances in “Basterds” are uniformly excellent.  Standing out head and shoulders above the rest is Austrian actor Christopher Waltz as Col. Landa.  His part is seething with charm, menace and a love of milk.  He’s the most interesting Nazi in ages.  Perhaps second only to Bruno Ganz’s delusional Hitler in “Downfall.”  Though one only need show a Nazi smiling to illicit fear, Waltz plays the part with such European finesse, we hate that he’s so awful at his core.  He makes ordering pastry just a tad spooky.  French actress Melanie Laurent is a young discovery of great talent.  Playing Shosanna, she is essentially the film’s lead and though stunning to look at, she has great range at her fingertips.  Pitt may be the headliner but his is the most one dimensional performance in the film; a hick accent, jutting jaw and cartoonish mannerisms are what he’s made of.  Not to imply there’s anything wrong with him here, there’s simply no depth to the part written for him and the movie is not bad off because of it.  His scene with redneck Italian is a small bit of comedic genius.  But overall it reinforces my belief that an entire film based on the Basterds exploits alone would’ve been a chore to sit through.  Director Eli Roth is on hand to display his talent for wide-eyed enthusiasm at dispensing hardcore brutality.  No one should be shocked.  Tarantino rounds out the rest of his cast with solid unknowns, mostly European actors, and very small cameos from those in his dedicated stock company.  Listen carefully.

Let’s wrap back around to that whole end thing shall we?  The ending of “Inglorious Basterds” is one of those tense, feverish cases of pure movie bliss.  It’s so rooted in implausible nuttiness that one has no choice but to either reject it as a work of insanity or embrace it for the same reason.  Tarantino rewrites history with a big, freakin’ grin on his face and I would hope to see more acts of narrative recklessness like this.  Flames, bullets and cinema all combust in an explosion of historical, defying bliss.  He simply gives history the middle finger, stating that this is his movie and this is how it must end.  For once an audience doesn’t have to let its knowledge of history make an ending a forgone conclusion.  It’s a fresh touch that this viewer couldn’t help but love.

I strongly believe that whatever appreciation “Inglorious Basterds” generates now will only grow with the passage of time.  If Tarantino isn’t growing as an artist, he isn’t, he’s at least keeping his zeal for the riveting and the outlandish fresh and relevant.  After the minor letdown that was “Death Proof”, I’m glad to see there’s no more backsliding.  He mimics, he copies and in some cases he steals outright, but to date Tarantino has avoided being boring.  “Inglorious Basterds” fills me with hope that his tendencies towards prolonged absences at the cinema are over and he will continue to be prolific and exciting.

arkadin

Whatever Orsen Welles did in a past life, it must have been truly horrific.  Perhaps he slapped Da Vinci and pissed all over a work in progress.  Maybe he called Beethoven a hack and tore a lost symphony to shreds.  He could’ve been watching Monet paint and then sneezed all over the unfinished piece.  Whatever it was, the forces that control the universe felt inclined to reign down a life of artistic frustration on Welles what has been unrivaled by most in the modern era.  The man had an eye for film like no other before and it was his misfortune to have that eye constantly doubted and tinkered with.

Welles was able to complete just one Hollywood production without having his film drastically altered at the hands of producers and studios.  William Randolph Hurst merely offered $1 million in 1940 money to destroy it completely.  That one production being the landmark classic “Citizen Kane.”  Every studio film he made after that suffered at the hands of others unwilling to let director complete his visions.  His many independent productions took years to complete while several others were left unfinished.  Though now widely acknowledged as a master level filmmaker by nearly every film scholar, much of Welles’ work remains difficult to see.  His butchered “Kane” follow up, “The Magnificent Ambersons”, hasn’t seen any kind of home video release since the days of laserdiscs.  His Shakespearean films, “Othello”, “Macbeth” and “The Chimes at Midnight”, are hardly known in the U.S.  Helping remedy a small part of this Welles tangle are the good folks at Criterion.  The rescuers of dozens of lost classics have lavished their attention on one of Welles most curious films, “Mr. Arkadin.”  A jangled and fragmented motion picture which resembles a piece of broken glass dangling in a window, “Mr. Arkadin” has traveled one of the more curious roads to pseudo completion.

Criterion presents the film in what is being billed as a comprehensive version.  No fewer than five versions of “Mr. Arkadin”, all with major or minor differences, have been studied over to create this rough approximation of what Welles may have intended his film to be like.  Structurally uneasy, the film begins with a prologue about an empty airplane, moves to a desolate German city and then kicks in with a series of flashbacks which serve as the makeup of the entire film.  We follow a minor criminal who one night stumbles upon the murder of a man on a dock.  The dying man whispers a few words to his girlfriend before his departure, saying little more than the title character’s name.  Thus begins the strange tale of “Mr. Arkadin.”

It’s a disjointed experience from the first frame to the last.  These feelings of narrative instability were probably unavoidable considering the picture’s history.  In a move that he was probably growing used to by the time, Welles was removed from the editing room before he finished his film.  But unlike he restored “Touch of Evil”, he left no detailed notes about how the film should be finished.  Everyone involved has essentially guessed at what Welles would’ve done and hoped for the best.

The final product contains many of Welles signature elements.  Vivid black and white visuals shot at intense low angels dominate the movie.  Unconventional editing styles which flew in the face of most of the films being made at the time are common place for Welles.  With himself as the title character, a mysterious and sinister figure whose motives are unknown, almost unknowable, his presence dominates the film on nearly every level.  Everyone talks about, is scared of or drawn to Mr. Arkadin.   All of this makes for an eye catching movie experience, but also a chaotic and unendearing one.  A viewer can follow “Mr. Arkadin” but always making sense of it is another matter.  Characters seem to materialize out of then air, other characters globe trot with ease, plot is shot over so quickly one can barely understand what’s transpiring, assumption of importance is key.  It all seems to fall into place in the end, but the effect flirts with being exhausting.  The movie is a work out and growing a bit tired of its constant hoop jumping can be expected.  One scene in particular feels like a metaphor for the entire film.  Set on a ship in small room, the female lead talks plot with Welles’ Arkadin character.  She’s drunk and the sea is making the boat roll.  Welles stands in the center of the room unmoving, glaring at her with an unflappable demeanor.  From her perspective the entire room is practically moving in circles, while Arkadin, always stiff as a board, stands still, front and center, never moving an inch in frame.  It’s as if Welles is glaring straight at us, daring us to admit we’re lost in his head churning movie.

“Mr. Arkadin” isn’t really a classic in the traditional sense.  It lacks sympathetic characters, it rambles everywhere, in some ways it’s too nerve racking and it all holds together by the thinnest of threads.  Though there are unconventional elements to admire about it, in the end it’s simply a small piece of the unfortunate story of Orsen Welles.  All the same its existence is a minor miracle.  Welles had so many cinematic crimes committed against him that any attempt to rectify one is a noble and worthy endeavor.  Film fans eagerly, if perhaps foolishly, wait for the day his other cinematic works can be restored as this one has.  His body of work was mercilessly hacked at by people who refused to let his visions take shape.  Should the means to restore and resurrect his other lost masterpieces ever materialize, the people behind the scenes need only look to this monolithic collection of material for inspiration on how to do the next film justice.

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“The Seventh Seal” is a wonderful movie to ponder about but a nearly impossible movie to write about.  It’s one of the penultimate, cinematic classics that thousands have pontificated over.  Adding anything useful to the dialogue seems unlikely at best.  I merely hope relay my sense of respect for the endeavor.  Having originally watched it some 8 odd years ago, “Seal” took on the dressings of an untouchable classic of which I felt incredibly ignorant.  I could remember little to nothing about the experience, only that it was dour, much appreciated and not in color.

Watching it today I was overcome with a renewed respect for the material and all the little wonders contained in its frames.  Every sequence in and of itself feels like its own small movie.  Thought and emotion run under every second of it, its stark imagery masking the irony and black humor contained through so much of it.  In the 50+ years since its original release, “Seal” has been lampooned endlessly and marginalized as leaden by many.  Flippancy has tried to kill it over time, but failed.  It is still a masterpiece of the highest order and I think that those who wish to belittle it with cheap jokes say more about themselves than the film itself.

On a side note, this may be my favorite Criterion cover and the transfer of this film looks beyond amazing on Blu Ray.

4-robert-downey-jr-less-than-zero“Less Than Zero” is a brat packer stab at movie legitimacy.  Produced towards the end of their cinematic reign, it features bland, packer poster boy Andrew McCarthy, Jami Gertz and then fringe packer Robert Downey Jr.  He was in “Weird Science” as well.  “Zero” contains most of the elements that would come to identify the source material’s author, Bret Easton Ellis.  Mainly being rich, privileged young people acting selfish and narcissistic.  It’s not a horrid film but nor is it entirely memorable.  The tepidness of McCarthy and Gertz keep the movie strictly at midlevel, though they do share a couple of surprisingly lusty sex scenes.  The only thing keeping this movie in the cinematic encyclopedia is Downey Jr.  For years his truthful and intense portrayal of a hopeless drug addict would serve as forshadowing to his own life.  But now clean, sober and successful one can appreciate him as a burgeoning actor whose talent marginalizes everyone else on the screen.  All in all the movie tends to serve as proof why the 80’s needed to die; the clothes, the hair, the coke, and why so few actors of the genre had meaningful careers after the fact.

On a side note, this film serves as the final chapter of the ‘Andrew McCarthy vs. James Spader’ trilogy.