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Monthly Archives: September 2009

games

Calling David Mamet a great filmmaker is going too far.  He’s never made a film that felt timeless or traditionally classic.  He doesn’t delve into the avant garde or try to be visually groundbreaking.  What Mamet does do is make is a singular type of film few others could duplicate.  He has a signature type of character and word that is his own and can always be spotted.  His characters are fierce creatures; people so determined and focused on their objectives that for them to even blink could let down their guard too much.  They do not waste words or like to suffer people who do.  “House of Games” was Mamet’s first feature and helped create these characteristics which now define him as a filmmaker.  And while time has been unkind to “House of Games”, con men movies and twist ending are everywhere, it’s still an interesting part of Mamet’s past.

Lindsey Crouse plays a therapist who gets sucked into the word of con man Joe Montegna.  Questioning the security which makes up her existence and the legitimacy of what she does professionally, she becomes engrossed in the double dealings of this underworld criminal.  The details of the story beyond this are unnecessary.  “House of Games” has a tremendous first act and while perhaps quite intriguing overall in 1987, it has since become structurally transparent.  The con man has his own sub-genre at this point, and while Mamet may have been one of the first to go there, many have been there since.  Those fierce characters that Mamet thrives on are still here and very watchable, but the story they’re occupying will surprise no one but the most rudimentary film watcher.  Con man movies are always building towards one more big con, it’s just a matter of the audience spotting it.  Here the final turn of the screw is far too easy to see because the audience has long since been tuned in to look for it in advance.  He salvages something with a gritty climax that flirts with shocking.  But in the end it’s not enough.

Montegna is incredibly solid and smooth here, so much so that many of his later parts seem like parodies of himself.  He’s an actor who easily tips over into cartoonishness but Mamet keeps him in check.  Crouse is adequate in her role, the part needs something low key like her, but she’s too stoic and passionless an actress.  She scores points here and there, but her range is limited and it hurts the overall film in important places.  That almost shocking climax may have been more shocking had another actress been part of it.

Mamet has made better films since “House of Games”, see “Spartan”, but it’s the one which marked his arrival.  It deserves something for that, even if it doesn’t grab the way it did in 1987.  Admirers and imitators are largely responsible for the film’s degraded state, nothing the film itself can be held responsible for.

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bardot_and_god_created_woman_1Movies like this make me think of that classic bit of philosophy that Al Pacino whispered in “Heat”, ‘Don’t waste my mother fucking time!’ Yes, the best French movies can spin great stories of tragedy, heart breaking romance and crushing loss. They can tell tales to make one run from the mere suggestion of infatuation, romance and lust. In the best of them, those who take hold of romance foolishly or haphazardly, die at its hands, crying and miserable as they leave this world for the next. And then there are the French directors who make love look like a silly crock of shit and the French in general to be nothing more than a nation of selfish, sleazy bastards. Roger Vadim’s “…and God Created Woman” is one of these films.

A foreign film hit of the 1950’s because of Bridgette Bardot’s four star ass, “Woman” follows the feverish Juliette, a spirited orphan who can’t control her base urges to be free, dance wildly and hump without inhibition. Facing the threat of being returned to the orphanage for being too loose, she marries the meekest of three brothers, the oldest and most arrogant of which wants to nail her as well. There’s also a business man who wants the lusty, youthful Juliette to himself. Most of these guys are pompous shits and Juliette herself is little more than a hot body twisting through each scene. The man she marries may not an awful stain like the others, but he’s in no way deserving of her affections. Bridgette Bardot was an international sensation because of her unbelievable body and she deserved all due admiration. Her glorious, golden rump deserved billing over everyone else in the film. Her actual performance isn’t much to take note of. She’s playing the wild child too selfish and unhinged to control herself. This amounts to a lot of pouting and slinking on her part.

Because the overall story never grabs you, one is left sharing time with a pack of arrogant snots all toying with the affections of the woman they want to screw. No one really deserves her and aside from her physical assets, she’s a pretty terrible person as well. The movie ends as only a French movie could, by having her weakling husband man up and smack her around, thus demanding her respect and chilling her ass out. It’s all incredibly stupid. It does have a spiffy calypso score which keeps things musically vibrant and if you’d like to see one of the worlds perfect asses slink around the screen for a few bits, “…and God Created Woman” might be something for you. Past that, there’s not much to recommend it.

Star_Trek_Motion_pictureLet’s talk about Star Trek movies.

Star Trek: The Motion Picture – While it inspires a lot of ambivalence amongst many viewers, the first Trek movie adventure is really one of their finer outings.  It may feel plodding in places, but it has a bold concept driving it, contemporary, big budget movies would never attempted anything similar to it. Of course Earth has been put in peril countless times before and since in tons of other films, but the first Trek movie builds a story whose ultimate motivations don’t boil down to random, apocalyptic destruction or megomanical foolishness. The destructive alien force out to obliterate Earth is revealed to be little more than a child.  A child that happens to be a supreme being attempting to grow beyond itself, to evolve beyond what it is. This lack of a clear antagonist to rankle the audience and draw ire flies in the face of most films in the sci-fi action cannon. When Trek attempts to break more traditional cinematic rules pertaining to good guys and bad guys, it often turns out for the best. Trek V excluded of course.

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Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan – Making a movie as good as “Wrath of Khan” is a double edged sword. On the one hand, you make what amounts to a cinematic classic whose appreciation extends well beyond the typically insulated sci-fi crowd.  It’s more than just the best Star Trek movie, it’s a fantastic movie all around. On the other hand lays the problem that has dogged all cinematic Trek since this came out, that nothing has been even close in terms of all around quality. Every Star Trek movie since “Khan” inevitably draws some kind of comparison to “Star Trek II” and they always come up short. Making things all the odder is that “Star Trek II” isn’t complicated. It’s a submarine movie where one captain, Khan, is a vicious psychopath who only wants one thing, to get his hands around the neck of the other captain, Kirk, and can’t. That’s the thrust of the plot, subplots not included.

Next to Montalban’s legendary performance as Khan, Shatner’s Kirk is the best he ever was in the role. Forced to gaze at the past he’s chosen to neglect for a life of adventuring, Kirk sees his arrogance and pride reflected back at himself and feels shame.  The introduction of a lost son and forgotten girl bring humanity to an iconic character previously known for little more than arch heroics and pompousness.  And the loss of Spock remains one of the entire series, movies and TV included, penultimate moments. After all these years it resonates and saddens, leaving the viewer devastated.

startrek3Star Trek III: The Search for Spock – They never should’ve searched for Spock.  One of my biggest beefs with Trek was the immediate decision to dramatically negate Spock’s death.  There was such fertile ground for this picture to deal with.  Spock being dead, Kirk suddenly trying to relate to a son he never knew, McCoy having no one to aim his damn its at.  It’s all dodged.  Had the minds behind this one been on their game, Spock would’ve stayed dead, Kirk would’ve been more tightly woven with his son’s story and we would’ve explored a story about how one man loses his best friend and tries to find his way on his own.  Instead we get a lot of Christopher Lloyd’s moronic Klingon acting exactly like the kind of bad guy which gives science fiction a bad name.  The movie is not a total bag of crap.  It has its moments to be sure and it suffers in no small part because it comes on the heels of Part II.  But regardless, it feels under imagined in many places and the potential for something better seems not hard to fathom.

StarTrekIVStar Trek IV: The Voyage Home – The one with the whales.  The conclusion of a sort of unintentional trilogy, parts 2-4, “Voyage” was always the popular Trek picture with people who didn’t like Trek pictures.  It’s a time travel comedy with a save the whales slant.  Only in the 1980’s could this have sounded like a winner.  While an undeniably enjoyable movie, very comfortable with the silliness at hand, “Voyage” feels like a side adventure after all that’s come before it.  Kirk has witnessed the death of Spock, the death of his son, the rebirth of Spock, and the destruction of the ship he’s called home for 20 years.  So after all of that he’s got to save Earth again from a giant probe that wants to talk to a whale.  I don’t really get it.  I like it enough, to be sure.  I just don’t really get it.  Kirk goes through the film seeming to have forgotten his son just died.  The movie addresses it once and then never again.  In fact, an emotionally satisfying conclusion to the events of Part III wouldn’t surface until “Star Trek VI.”

STVStar Trek V: The Final Frontier – Spock has a brother.  He makes the crew for looking for God.  God seems not that hard to find.  But he’s not God, just some ill-tempered alien prick.  They shoot him, he blows up, they go home and roast marshmallows.  Everything looked cheap.  The End.

STVIStar Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country – The final send off for the original crew and a fitting end to a nice run of movies, picky grievances aside.  Kirk and crew are forced to deal with those Klingon bastards after they ruin their environment and need to stop fighting Starfleet.  Kirk finally remembers that his son was killed by those same Klingon bastards and still carries a grudge.  Shenanigans take place and Kirk winds up on trial for killing a Klingon politician.  It’s an effective Cold War parable, a nice piece of mystery, has an exciting space battle in the end and comes with many strong moments between Kirk and Spock which address their age with agreeable frankness.  Christopher Plummer is surpassed only by Part II’s Khan in terms of superb, bad guy scenery chewing.  And though she would eventually find iconic success in “Sex in the City”, Kim Catrall was a Vulcan first, long before she was a slutty New Yorker.

The final movie for the original crew is as solid now as it was 18 years ago when it was first released.  They show with ease and sure handedness the kind of qualities that the Next Generation never had, that being a down to Earth, everyman humanity that all could relate to, empathize with and appreciate.  The original crew always felt like you were watching cool friends have fun.  The Next Generation crew always felt like you were watching boring people at work.  The final sign off of the cast was a wonderful touch, everything doubly blessed because of an unusually strong film score.

“The Undiscovered Country” also had one of the best teaser trailers ever.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dRsaalA9I10

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I have finally seen the last piece of the Brat Pack puzzle.  Artfully dodging it for years, “Pretty in Pink” is in some eyes regarded as one of the finer moments of teen skewed 80’s cinema.  A time when names like Ringwald, Nelson, Estevez and McCarthy ruled marquees with an iron fist.   The eyes that look back fondly at all of these movies need to see an optometrist.  Especially if they’re with fond memories of “Pretty in Pink.”  Its more prevalent status, as a frequently forgotten also ran member of the Brat Packer/John Hughes library, is understandable.  It’s no more than a run of the mill 80’s high school movie.  It’s not as in touch or revealing as “Breakfast Club”, or as amusingly odd as “Weird Science.”

Instantly undercutting any attempt to be taken seriously is the fact that “Pink” takes place in a universe that no one could ever relate to or even exist.  Movie high schools are usually as fictitious in nature as any galaxy far, far away, but whatever school this is supposed to represent could only exist in a Twilight Zone episode, or a movie.  The entire school is made up of disgustingly, hedonistic Caucasian prepsters who flaunt their parents money, have wild orgies on the weekend and summarily dismiss all those below their social status.  There are three poor kids in the whole place, zero minorities, and these three must shoulder the hassle of being shunned by all, as if they’re three whores locked in a convent.  The fashion on display also hopelessly dates the film.  Only 80’s movies, a decade in which fashion was more horrific than any puss covered alien in Carpenter’s “Thing”, can completely undercut their dramatic undercurrent simply because everyone looks thoroughly stupid.  What the people in this movie wear could pass for Halloween costumes now.

As for the plot, Brat Packer queen Molly Ringwald plays the poor girl who has the audacity to fall for eternally mundane Brat Packer king, Andrew McCarthy.  She’s poor, he’s rich, his scuzzy friends don’t want him dating lower class, he doesn’t have the backbone to tell them to bugger off, yada yada yada.  It’s all very routine.  You know where it’s going before it gets there.  The movie even forces indie icon Harry Dean Stanton into playing a ‘nice dad’ part.  He doesn’t even get to alcohol the part up a bit.  It’s quite dispiriting.  Jon Cryer almost made a name for himself with his role as Duckie, an unabashed dork with a long standing, unrequited love for the Ringwald.  His is the showiest part of the piece.  Unfortunately for Cryer the world already had a similar looking sweet boy in Matthew Broderick, so Cryer was cast into second tier teen flicks like “Hiding Out” and “Morgan Stewart’s Coming Home.”  Cryer had the last laugh though.  Thanks to the long running “Two and a Half Men”, he likely has more wealth now than all the other Brat Packers combined.  So I guess Duckie won in the end.

And one last note.  “Pretty in Pink” marked the first time stout of heart Andrew McCarthy would face off against the vile James Spader.  They would have many more onscreen battles, practically becoming the Sherlock Holmes and Moriarty of the 1980’s.

W&G LoafThe new “Wallace & Gromit” outing “A Matter of Loaf and Death” will have to sit towards the bottom of the W&G library.  The spark of originality and adventure that has often worked wonders in this series is curiously missing.  There’s a murderer of bakers loose in the city.  Wallace is now running a bakery.  He runs into a big woman who used to be the skinny spokeswoman for a bakery.  Guess what happens?   The lack of initiative here is surprising considering the track record of creator Nick Park.  I guess they felt the need to get W & G back on the market after an absence of several years but there’s little here that warranted the effort.  It’s a cute enough little entry into the now lengthy history of these two stop motion icons, but far from memorable.

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As “Samurai Spy” concluded I was aware of two things.  First, it was without a doubt one of the most visually arresting black and white movies ever made.  Second, I never had the slightest inkling as to what was happening or what was at stake for its entire 100 minute run time.

“Spy” was made by Masahiro Shinoda, who I can only assume was out to prove himself as bold stylist with this work.  It rejects the traditional, older forms of Japanese directing, that being stately and understated, and embraces all forms of radical techniques to ramp up his tale of double crossing, sword fighting samurais.  It’s openly violent and bloody, utilizes great moments of shadow play and selectively throws in slow motion to great effect.  I would bet no small amount of money that Tarantino studied this one intently.  Shinoda has master chops when it comes to crafting a mesmerizing looking film, but in the end his visually enthralling effort feels completely meaningless on many important levels, the most important being its impenetrable story.

On the back of DVD box, “Samurai Spy” has its plot neatly summarized in just a few sentences.  In retrospect the summation feels mostly accurate, but while watching “Spy” keeping track of its comings and goings ranks with advanced physics and brain surgery as things most people cannot do.  “Spy” begins with narration that attempts to fill us in on what’s happening at this point in Japanese history.  Wars are being fought, battles waged men killed, allegiances bound and broken, but mostly all this talk just serves to muddles things.  Its opening battle sequence is impressive in scale and execution, an instant attention getter, but at the same time we’re bombarded with information we can’t begin to process.  The central character, Sasuke, moves through the proceedings having one encounter after another, the importance of which can never be determined.  “Samurai Spy” would’ve been greatly served had it taken a more vague and enigmatic approach to its story.  As it is, Shinoda never lets up on the details and thus, what could’ve been an impressionistic, and maybe likable, haze becomes a jumble of names and places the viewer can never straighten out.  This type of turgid storytelling is prevalent in other Japanese films as well and it leaves one wondering if an unbreachable cultural gap exists on some level.

I want to recommend “Samurai Spy” regardless of its hardheaded story.  It’s too engaging to look at to dismiss out of hand.  A second viewing of it could perhaps lift the veil off of the story.  If not, the astonishing look of the piece is still there to appreciate.  Lovers of Japanese and/or samurai movies would be wise to seek it out.

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Misery and the lack of sympathy inherent in man towards other men is the overriding message of the Japanese classic “Sansho the Bailiff.”  All its characters go through unspeakable hardships, everyone suffers unjustly at the hands of others, and when opportunities arise to right great wrongs, more misery is unearthed.  “Sansho” is a heralded classic of Japanese cinema, but one so irrepressibly down, that watching it can leave you wasted by the time the credits roll.

“Sansho” follows the hardships of a Japanese family after the father, a Governor, is stripped of his title and exiled for standing up for the poor and destitute of his community, accused of provoking revolt.  He’s a rare man of compassion who believes all men should live with dignity and humility towards one another, a message he religiously teaches his children, but his message is not shared by his upper class contemporaries.  Several years pass and as his family journeys to be reunited with him, the mother and his two children are separated and sold into slavery by bandits.  The mother’s fate becomes a breif mystery, the two children are sold to a vile slave dealer, the Sansho of the title, and there they spend a decade under his brutal thumb.  Though they try to remember their father’s lesson, the son gradually gives way to the cruel nature of his surroundings, abandoning his father’s ideals.  His sister fears for his soul and begs him to escape with her.  The story takes further turns which provoke compassion, righteousness and ultimately despair.  Though great pains are taken to set things right, some things are beyond repair and some revenge can never be taken.

“Bailiff”, as directed by Japanese legend Kenji Mizoguchi, explores mans tendencies to subjugate his neighbor, to rob women of their dignity and to suppress any and all attempts to free oneself from these unjust bonds.  More specifically, “Bailiff” shows us how the corrupt nature of one man, Sansho, can destroy the righteousness of others and lead lesser people down toward a corrupt path.  Mizoguchi doesn’t think of all people as evil, but he clearly feels that it doesn’t take much to make good people do evil things.  Though the theme seems clear and the characters fit the mold, calling the film “Sansho the Bailiff” feels somewhat off.  Though it’s his cruelty which provokes a lot of the action, he is strictly a minor character, two dimensional in his awfulness, with no story arc himself to complete.  It would be something akin to renaming “Return of the Jedi” to “Jabba the Hutt.”

Viewers looking for challenging cinema which can stir up more than a passive feeling of appreciation would be wise to view Mizoguchi’s masterpiece.  It’s a classic of significant status and a movie not to be taken lightly.  But for God’s sakes, don’t watch it on a pleasant day when the sun is shining, the birds are chirping and life is good.  It will cloud over the shiniest sun, make that bird drop dead and send any viewer into cycle of intense depression.

rosencrantz-and-guildenstern-are-deadGreat plays can frequently make great movies.  See “Glengary Glenross.”  But sometimes the visually limited scope of a play can turn its movie counterpart into an unendurable exercise in dramatic claustrophobia.  Tom Stoppard’s legendary deconstruction of two minor Shakespearean characters is ripe with ideas that consistently engage the intellect, but is as ideal for cinematic adaptation as a bear shitting in the woods.  “RAGAD” is visually bland, needlessly stretched out and dramatically turgid at all turns.  Not falling asleep while watching it is impossible.  Though the intellectual current of his acclaimed stage work is completely intact, Stoppard has no means to turn the material into an involving movie.  Tim Roth, Gary Oldman and Richard Dreyfuss engage themselves as only pros of their standing could hope to achieve, bringing as much life and humanity to those who are deconstructed and/or clueless as possible.  But Stoppard’s film keeps their efforts at arms length.  He never attempts to reach out emotionally to his audience in any shape or form.  He’s simply trying to coast on a sound foundation of intellectual jabbering.  In the end, “RAGAD” feels a few steps above a filmed academic lecture on the nature of character development.  If anyone can stay awake for this drearily filmed exercise, you may eventually find yourself captivated by and appreciating the ideas it’s expressing.  But if that doesn’t occur, you’re likely to zone out and fall into coma.

changeling-international-posterClint Eastwood and Angelina Jolie took it on the chin from certain corners for last year’s high profile slip up “Changeling.”  Though not without its defenders “Changeling” was unfairly belittled by many a critic who seemed to be bearing a grudge against Jolie and her high profile, tabloid status.  It was more fun to be snide than acute.  With expectations out of the way and any and all buzz now long forgotten, “Changeling” can be viewed in a more even-handed climate, and what one may find is a more than decent, thoroughly compelling, unconventional drama. It may be less than perfect, but it is in no way some kind of laughable disaster to be held up for unwarranted ridicule.

Jolie plays Christine Collins, a single mother in 1928 Los Angeles who heads off to work unexpectedly one afternoon, leaving her son alone. Upon returning home, she finds her son gone, but no sign of any struggle.   She’s immediately met by beauracratic red tape when she calls the police to report her son missing.  Cut to five months later.   The police return a boy to Christine, but she knows it’s not him.  They cajole her into taking him home and when she tries to convince them taht they’ve made an error, they label her insane.  And so the constantly shifting plot of “Changeling” winds it’s curious course.   She becomes a noble cause defended by John Malkovich’s Reverend Briegleb, a righteous soul out to expose rampant police corruption.  She’s thrown into an insane asylum for refusing to acquiesce to police demands that the stranger child is her son.   We meet her son’s likely abductor, a twitchy lunatic who is a mass murderer of children.  It’s all so lurid and ridiculous that the only thing holding it together is the fact that it’s all based on a true story and that the story is being piloted by the cool and even hand of director Eastwood.

Eastwood’s old fashioned sense of no fuss stylization keeps “Changeling” from veering into corny melodrama.  It would be easy to over blow nearly every situation the film presents into a series of climaxes and high drama.   Such a case probably would’ve made “Changeling” unwatchable.   As it is, he instills the film with crafted feelings, carefully shifting from mystery to outrage to horror and earning the right to keep things fluid and unconventional.  Jolie took some lumps for her performance here, and it’s easy to see why she was unfairly slapped around.   Her character is singularly focused on getting her son back and all other emotions play second to this.  It leads to a feeling of repetition in her performance, but what other way could her character be?   Her child is her life and to make her character suddenly fret or agonize over something else would’ve been a waste.

As for the rest of the cast, Eastwood can often undercut his best work by dropping in cartoon colored, two dimensional characters into the mix of complex dramas, but here everyone is playing it a bit arch and on the nose.   Malkovich fits surprisingly well into the part of crusading dogooder.   Colm Feore and Jeffrey Donovan make suitably selfish and sleazy LAPD cops.   Jason Harner is all deranged ticks, crazy twitches and maniacal laughter as child killer Gordon Northcott.   And making a strong first impression as a sad accomplice to Northcott’s killer is teenager Eddie Alderson.   With everyone on the same page stylistically and the lack of under the surface qualities inherent in everyone, things gel together for the best.

“Changeling” may be no “Zodiac”, but it is a worthy movie, entertaining and engrossing.   Eastwood deserves some credit here but most of that was saved for his slightly overrated “Gran Torino.”  He’s put together a complex film that most other filmmakers probably would’ve fumbled around for then ruined.  He’s even supplied it with one of his accomplished, low key scores.  Special, and surprise, appreciation can also go to writer J. Michael Straczynski.   After years of beating the carcass of his dead science fiction creation “Babylon 5”, he’s finally shown himself capable of creating something worth pursuing.  Having Eastwood look over your shoulder can no doubt be of help.

Right before he dircted the film which would bestowe him with “Master Class” status in the eyes of film lovers and critics worldwide, “Unforgiven”, Clint Eastwood stood behind the camera for “The Rookie”, a run-of-the-mill, buddy-cop movie embarassment in which he co-starred with sliding star Charlie Sheen.