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Monthly Archives: November 2009

Ten Words or Less Review:  Very likeable stop motion effort.

Wes Anderson has slowly but surely been tempting fate and the film going community to label him a one-dimensional show pony.  Too many film admirers have spent too much time and too many words endlessly fawning on his tepid output.  When Anderson releases a film, many critics pucker up to kiss his ass no matter how irrelevant the results are.  His body of work follows quite closely to the laws of diminishing returns.  For each new film a little bit more of the novelty is gone and more of the limited nature of the ability is viewable.  “Rushmore’s” greatness lead to the decently mixed bag of “The Royal Tenenbaum’s” which lead to the amazingly dull “Life Aquatic” which resulted in the slightly less lethargic “Darjeeling Limited.”   So it’s with surprise and amusement that his stop motion project, “The Fantastic Mr. Fox”, breaks his back sliding tendencies.  It may not be a revelation of the medium, but it’s lighter, unforced and endlessly more enjoyable than anything Anderson has done in years.

“Fox” excels because it knows how to achieve sublime laughs with seemingly minor efforts.  All of Anderson’s trademarks are readily apparent, lots of symmetry, a good pop rock soundtrack, but they’re in service of a story in which his bucket of idiosyncrasies feels at ease with what’s happening.  To date, Anderson has been forcing stories to fit his style instead of letting things in the story control him.  Things have to look and be a certain way whether it amounts to anything or not.  Part of Anderson’s core is nothing more than a silly prankster, begging to amuse and he’s finally latched onto an appropriate tale which lets us in on this gag.  “Fox” is about little more than the joy of thievery.  Never before has a pseudo-kid film been so in love with stealing things in general, but robbery schematics and bandit masks to boot.  George Clooney voices the title character, a life long thief who can no longer stand the constrained nature of the legitimate life he’s taken on.  He’s a robber of goods and must be true to himself.  He initially abandons his devil may care ways so that he and his wife, a barely noticeable Meryl Streep, can raise their forthcoming son.  As age, his son and responsibility grow, Mr. Fox falls back into the patterns of youthful recklessness.  He hatches a plot to steal the various delicacies of his industrial produce neighbors who in turn set out to destroy him.  The results of his transgressions begin to wreck the life of his entire community, not just himself.  Lessons are learned.

As stated, Anderson’s desire to be uniquely visual melds wonderfully with the nature of stop motion animation.  Compared to the exceedingly refined quality of recent stop motion efforts like “Coraline” or “The Corpse Bride”, “Mr. Fox” is just a little primitive looking by comparison.  It lacks the boundary pushing nature of those efforts.  Where as those movies could only exist now, “Mr. Fox” could be 20 years old and no one would be the wiser.   Breaking barriers and playing a game of stop motion one upsmanship isn’t the motive here.  It exists to push forth Anderson’s singularities which impresses with minor details and exceedingly lush cinematography.

“The Fantastic Mr. Fox” isn’t a film so much without faults as it is a movie with only certain ambitions.  It’s here to push forth its hip sensibilities and oddball sense of humor and this it does very well.  For those who don’t catch its vibe correctly, it will be little more than an odd kid movie with a chuckle or two around certain corners.  Fans of Anderson should enjoy it, and some of his less ardent detractors will likely enjoy it too.  And to be quite clear and upfront, this is not a traditional kid’s movie by any stretch and part of me thinks children will be bored senseless by it.  The ones in audience at my viewing seemed to be thoroughly uninterested.  But if you’re reading this your not a kid, so don’t worry about it.

Ten Words or Less Review: Harvey Keitel does drugs.  Lots and lots of drugs.

 Sipping on a bottle of booze, snorting some coke, freebasing heroin, shooting heroin, smoking crack, spending time with hookers and it’s only lunch time.  This is the average day of the unnamed Lieutenant.  1992’s independent shocker “Bad Lieutenant” features Harvey Keitel as a rampant New York officer of the law whose sole purpose is to recklessly flaunt his power and consume as many narcotics as humanly possible.  He’s an officer on a singular but enigmatic course of unrivaled self destruction.

 With its constant grimness and low side of life point-of-view, “Bad Lieutenant” was seen as an icon of early 90’s independent cinema.  The movie has an unrepentant attitude towards Keitel’s loathsome cop.  Directed almost gorilla style Abel Ferrara, “Lieutenant” is as opposite to typical Hollywood fair as one can achieve.  Nothing about any of this is romanticized or made upbeat for the sake of appeasing an audience.  The movie’s insistence on exploring this depraved individual defines it, but at the same time its unwillingness to see anything besides Keitel’s corrupt acts makes it a largely one dimensional experience.  Keitel’s performance may be a fearless piece of work, but the story spends a great deal of time requiring very little of him besides doing lots of drugs.

By the 9th time we watch Keitel snort blow or pound down a bottle of hooch hidden in his pocket, we’re left wondering if any point to all this will emerge.  Keitel’s character more than lacks a name, he lacks a life outside of his wicked acts.  We know he has kids and a family, but rarely does the movie, or even the character, acknowledge them or explore what has brought him to this vile crossroads.  Only in the last movements of the movie does a deeper, repentant character begin to emerge.  Struggling, ignoring, his work with the case of a raped nun, Keitel’s Lieutenant reaches rock bottom and begs the nun for the names of her attackers so he can dispatch them.  But she’s forgiven them.  She has no desire to see them punished.  No sense of retribution is contained within her.  In her ultimate act of forgiveness she’s rendered him powerless, his desire to do something vengeful and seemingly right in his eyes is taken away.  Stripped of ability to do anything, he has a religious epiphany and begs a materialized Christ to forgive him for his weakness and depravity.  He’s shown the way to the nun’s rapist, but he follows the nun’s example and sets them free.  This finale is the one place in the movie that feels like a revelation of something more than just shock.  “Lieutenant” may lapse into heavy handed symbolism in these scenes, but they wake the character, and the film, out of a drug fueled stupor from which it rarely fails to escape. 

 The final conclusion of “Bad Lieutenant” will be clear to any well versed viewer of films like this, but as more time passes the more I feel endings such as these, once seen as fierce, are in their own independent minded way, lazy.  If Hollywood productions must always end with a forced sense of uplift, movies like “Bad Lieutenant” must always end with a sense of downbeat finality.  It’s as pre-ordained by its style and setting as the foregone conclusions which entail heroes and heroines running off into the sunset.  An uplifting ending isn’t necessary, or even appropriate, but what’s here lacks imagination.  What passed for hard hitting in 1992 has now become commonplace.

Beyond its conclusion “Bad Lieutenant” hasn’t aged well for several reasons.  So many troubled, wicked and more interesting cops have come to populate TV and movies in the subsequent years.  The once daring nature of this production has gotten a little lost.  Ferrara and Keitel deserve credit for being uncompromising in their presentation of a wretched soul, but the movie feels handicapped by its limited view and structure.  While it may cling onto its pioneering reputation in certain circles, other storytellers have moved past this once strong achievement, going on to create deeper tales of cops lost in the wilderness of their impossible and destructive lives.

Ten Words or Less Review: Decent con flick.  Well made but minor.

I’d love to tell you that “The Brothers Bloom” lived up to its divisive hype.  The story goes that at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival “Brothers Bloom” irritated and annoyed viewers by the gross and snottyFrench critics walked out of screenings in droves.  It apparently doesn’t take much to piss off a snotty French critic.  Did it ever?  “The Brothers Bloom” is an enjoyably decent but all around minor movie that seems an odd bird to aim ones ample ire at.  It’s such piffle that to invest copious amounts of negative emotion in it says more about the viewer than the film itself.  It’s the story of two brothers, lifelong grifters, and their new mark, a lifelong flake, and the little adventure they all go on.

Raised by various foster parents over the course of their unorthodox childhood, Stehpen and Bloom, Mark Ruffalo and Adrian Brody, have grown up to become a pair of legendary conmen amongst the denizens of the conmen world.  Their plans take months to lie out and are thought out to the smallest psychological detail by Ruffalo’s Stephen.  But after years of playing the part his brother writes for him, Brody’s Bloom comes to feel he has no identity of his own.  He’s never been anything but what his brother shapes him into and no he’s having an identity crisis.  After leaving his brother to find nothing more than the bottom of a bottle, Bloom gets cajoled into going through one more scam.  Their mark is Penelope, a wealthy loon who’s never experienced the outside world played with bright eyed, vigor by the always adorable and forever watchable Rachael Weisz.  As affection overtakes Bloom and Penelope, she turns Bloom’s already dysfunctional state of mind even more on its head, leaving him more out of sorts than he was when their odyssey begins.  Brody is good at relaying the emotional constipation his character suffers from without making him whiney or one note and Ruffalo excels as usual as the stronger of the two brothers.  Johnson could turn the whole movie around to Ruffalo’s point of view and have created a wildly different, and perhaps more sure footed movie.  As it is the depth of Ruffalo’s character remains unknown until the very end of the story.

“Bloom” was directed and written by Rian Johnson, the much discussed hand behind the cult favorite “Brick.”  Whereas “Brick” was an attempt to meld and mix genres into something new and unseen, “The Brothers Bloom” is comfortable with playing by the conman movie rules in fairly straight forward fashioned.  I would even say he tilts things less than usual which in and of itself is refreshing.  Many a conman/heist flick get wrapped up in their own sense of game playing, caught up in their own cleverness the viewer in turn gets entangled in a guessing game of how the film will trick them one last time.  “Bloom” plays this game to some extent but it plays it fair and with an emotional payoff.  It doesn’t include any one last cheat twist just to take an upper hand on the audience.

“Bloom” has a lot of spiffy style and an unabrasive demeanor.  Johnson uses his beautiful European locations to give his film an old-fashioned, unforced sheen.  It feels like a spiritual cousin to the “Topkapi’s” and “Pink Panther’s” of the 1960’s.  It does develop cracks though in character and story as it amiably skips along.  Johnson seems to cast aside numerous character resolutions because of inconvenience to his story.  He makes it a point to populate his film with notable and skilled character actors, Robbie Coltrane, Maximilian Schell, but then fails to give their characters any real payoff.  Rachel Weisz’s character also feels superfluous in the final act.  Her arc ends too soon and is left adrift during the finale with no remaining purpose.   As the film progresses Johnson concentrates wholly on the film’s center in Ruffalo and Brody. It’s their story that he’s telling, and more to the point Brody’s, and as the film comes to its resolution, we’re left with the strange sensation that much of what we just went through, though amusing, was somehow unnecessary. 

With “Brothers Bloom” and “Brick” both under his belt, Rian Johnson has established himself as a director to watch for future developments.  He’s not without considerable skill, but I feel he has yet to nail a story down in its entirety.  He’s easily caught up in distractions and attention getting gimmicks that take away from the purpose as a whole.  He’s easy to compare to the likes of Wes Anderson with his quirks and deadpan humor, but not as nearly one dimensional as Mr. Everything’s Symmetrical.

Ten Word or Less Review:  Strong first feature but not quite as relevant as before.

 “Bloody Sunday” is Paul Greengrass’s first feature which recounts a pivotal and violent altercation between Irish Catholics marching for civil rights and the British military in late 1972.  Though the march was deemed an illegal demonstration, an agitated and aggressive collection of soldiers let loose with random gunfire into defenseless crowds and killed 13 people.  The film is a subdued voice of outrage about a tragic event which greatly changed Irish/British relations for the next 25 years.

 Invoking a strong sense of similarity to the classic “The Battle of Algiers”, both involve the occupation of land by foreign militaries and the violence that erupts in said situation, “Sunday” largely follows the efforts of pacifist advocator Ivan Cooper, (James Nesbitt).   Cooper was an advocate for non-violence who wanted those following his lead to remain peaceful at all cost.  But as the situation deteriorates in front of his eyes, he knows all hope is lost for a peaceful solution.  After the massacre, IRA hostilities toward the British would escalate as angry youth began to flock towards the more militant IRA movement.    

 Director Greengrass is Michael Bay with skill.  He films intense mayhem and chaos, but unlike the talent challenged Bay, brings it all together with coherence, precision and exactitude.  Greengrass’s characters may frequently be at a loss as to what’s happening around them, but the viewer rarely is.  It’s his ability to organize pure bedlam which has made him one of the most influential, I.E. copied, directors currently working.  His Bourne films have set the standard by which contemporary action films must judge themselves and “United 93” may be the most unpleasantly intense movies ever made.  That amounts to praise through damnation. 

 “Bloody Sunday” was regarded with praise as proof that low-budget innovation could trump Hollywood spectacle when in the right hands.  It’s clearly an influential movie as that in the 7 years since its release; the film has become its own worst enemy.  While still a visceral and invigorating film, “Bloody Sunday” now feels slightly old hat in nature.  It’s hand held style and gritty look have permeated into scores of other Hollywood films.  “Children of Men” looks and feels like a sequel set in the future.  Greengrass himself still utilizes much of the same style he began using here with very little difference.  His scope and budgets have only gotten bigger.

 Some other minor issues hanging over “Bloody Sunday” are accents and characters.  While mostly clear and understandable, on occasion the Irish accents thicken to the point of incomprehension.  Characters aside from Cooper are also minimally explored.  Greengrass is more interested in the general events and details of the day and less with character arcs or more traditional dramatics.  “Bloody Sunday” remains an intense piece of filmmaking, but not the most emotional one.  Only when innocent Irish start to get pulverized by trigger happy British soldiers does the film make an emotional impact. .  It’s portrayal of tragedy is still a valid expression of outrage, and it doesn’t take cheap shots or pull shamelessly on heartstrings.

 “Bloody Sunday” put Greengrass on the map and for that it will forever be regarded as an important movie.   The world has changed drastically since the film’s production and perhaps that’s the central issue lessening its impact.  The world of Ireland and the IRA seem so distant and minor compared to terroristic threats of today that the importance of “Bloody Sunday’s” event is difficult to grasp.  The IRA and the British military would duel violently for the next 25 years after this day in 1972, and the historical irony of a peace march instigating so much bloodshed is a point viewers should linger on.   It’s a strong first feature from a director who has gone on to reshape action filmmaking.  And while it may seem of lesser importance now, it’s still a fine representation of how low-budget skill and artistic determination can out do Hollywood bombast on any given day.

Ten Word or Less Review: Not for me.

“Night of the Creeps” is apparently a long sought after 80’s horror film which has just now seen the light of day on DVD, 12 years into the format and 23 years after its initial release.  Absence apparently makes the heart grow fonder for some.  I’ll give the movie some credit for trying to be different.  From the alien prologue to the 50’s horror movie intro I thought there might be something worth pursuing here.  But as soon as the movie shifts to its contemporary, 1986, setting, things turn formulaic.  The geek in love with the pretty girl who dates the preppy sleaze again?  Then brain slugs start popping out and zombies shuffle around and everything starts getting shot in the head. I just zoned it out about half way through.  It’s a smidgen cleverer than most of what this genre has to offer and it’s never really a rank thing, but at its core it’s a dopey movie with silly characters that doesn’t have a lot to offer those who don’t think of it without a shot of nostalgia in the arm.

Ten Word or Less Review: Not too shabby remake of not too shabby original.

By all accounts the remake of “The Taking of Pehlam 123” should be an easily dismissed and trivial thing.  It’s helmed by Tony Scott, whose films often range from annoying to terrible.  It features John Travolta as yet another scenery chewing bad guy going gleefully over the top in pursuit of ransom.  Opposite him is ever stalwart Denzel Washington, an actor who despite his years of critical worship and box office clout often attaches himself to very marginal pictures.  It gets a big look of skepticism for being a remake by default and a second ugly glare for being a remake of a solid movie that was done right 25 years ago.  The world should never forget the Matthau.  So with no real point to exist and no one of excitement involved in its unnecessary making, how the Hell did this movie turn out as well as it did?

A big part of the credit goes to screenwriter Brian Helgeland.  While sticking fairly close to the original story’s structure, he’s given intelligence and believability to the characters and avoids clichés when he can.  While Travolta and Washington can bring a certain dependability with them, if the screenplay fails, they typically fail too.  His screenplay is lean and on target, not wasting time on subplots and trivialities anyone would care about.  He includes a few contrivances here and there but often earns them with proper build up.  Nothing in this movie feels like a cheat or cheap way out.

Travolta’s umpteenth manic nutcase is held together by two things.  First, his psychopath backs up his words.  When hard situations develop that require nasty actions on his part, the film doesn’t dodge or wimp out in an attempt to make us like him a little bit longer.  It takes the gritty way through things.  The second, and this isn’t a spoiler, we know in good time that a lot of his insane antics are a ruse.  His character is obviously a deadly and damaged man, but we also know there is more than just the banality of insanity driving him.  He’s not just the average, over the top Travolta bad guy, he’s a cold psychopath pretending to be the over the top Travolta bad guy.  Making good counter balance to Travolta’s histrionics is Washington’s believable everyman.  His character looks and speaks less like someone in a movie and more like someone who works for the New York City transit system.  He stays low key through and through.  The movie avoids turning him into an action hero that would destroy his credibility as a character.  Washington may not have to stretch much for parts like this, but he’s good at them none the less.

“Pehlam” also makes the wise decision to not idiot up its supporting characters.  A permanent staple of pictures like this are parts like ‘the arrogant detective’ or ‘the bumbling mayor.’  People in positions of authority are often used as moronic devices so the protagonist has someone to defy, be smarter than and possibly punch in the face when the story requires one last beat to end on.  John Turturro (the detective) and James Gandolfini (the mayor) are strong names to waste on parts like that, so “Pehlem” wises up and writes better angles for them to play.  Both characters get a sense of pragmatic believability and insight, mercifully divorced from the usually moronic arcs these characters are forced to perform.

Not gumming up the works behind the camera is the often and rightly maligned Tony Scott.  Scott’s movies are often boring exercises in flashy bullshit.  While he started out as a helmsman for vacuous Tom Cruise movies (Top Gun, Days of Thunder), he gradually developed an impatient and irritating style that some damn fool decided to admire, others soon followed this lead.  Scott works his movies up into a frenzy of useless editing chaos, assaulting the viewer with so many cuts and film tricks that everything falls into a smoldering lump on the theater floor.  He’s less about letting a scene play out and more about drawing a twitchy, nervous attention to himself.  Here he steps back his usual editorial assaults and delivers something a little more visually digestible.  His approach here invokes more of “Crimson Tide” and less of “Domino.”  He keeps the action moving forward at a good, but not impatient clip, always making sure the viewer catches what their supposed to.  While he can’t completely control himself at all times, irksome touches still pop up, Scott seems to know he has pros in front of the camera with an all around functioning chemistry and that too much toying will mess it up.  His bag of psychotic tricks and stupid gimmicks stays mostly zipped shut.  He also makes the wise decision to use a lot of real New York locations.  Genuine New York scenery can practically be a free supporting character when films use it to their advantage as Scott does here.

Hollywood’s creative bankruptcy can’t be argued.  It’s a system obsessed with established properties and familiar titles.  Creativity in movies seems as shunned and loathed as teaching evolution in a Kansas elementary school.  But occasionally, despite all evidence to the contrary, one of these misguided ventures turns out favorable.  “The Taking of Pehlam 123”, while not perfect, is proof that not every remake has to be cynical and pointless.  When brought to life with some craft and intelligence, a remake of something that was a good thing can be a good thing a second time around.

Ten Word or Less Review: As fun as cow pie staring.  The mild, mild west.

“Silverado” has been a staple of the home video market for nearly 25 years.  Though only marginally successful when first released, it has been a title consistently at the ready on the shelf, first at video stores, then on DVD and now on Blu-Ray.  No matter how the market changes, “Silverado” goes with it.  To this I can only infer that the determination of western fans is greater than the average person assumes because if the western genre was dead in the 80’s, “Silverado” does nothing to prove it was otherwise.  Its longevity only proves that people dig mediocrity, especially when it has lots of familiar faces and rides a horse.

“Silverado” could easily be whittled down to a 90 minute action/western exercise.  It doesn’t for a minute delve in rule breaking of any sort.  Director Lawrence Kasdan apparently wanted to make an ode to westerns that harkened back to the films of his youth, but divorced from any of the biting social commentary, anti-heroes or subversive character a lot of those films played with.  It has the grand score and the big vistas, the shoot outs and the horse chases, the good guys and the bad guys, but it’s all tiresomely old fashioned and grasps onto conventions of the genre when it doesn’t need to.  The only thing missing, surprisingly, is a pack of Native Americans needing some white people to expose their plight and instill guilt in the audience.  Characters and scenes seem dropped in simply because this type of story demands they be there.  Is there a strong willed woman there wanting to work the land and make a prosperous life?  Check.  Does she serve any purpose to the story what so ever?  Nope.  It she forgotten half way through and barely acknowledged again?  Yup.  There’s a lot of this padding running through “Silverado.”  The first hour of the film plays out slowly, always flirting with being irrelevant, and it never recovers from the lack of story tension.  It’s meant to serve as character building, but none of it builds up to much.

The commonly perceived idea that big names can sell a movie must work in “Silverado’s” favor because it’s got a great cast of pros few films can rival.  Getting top billing is a miscast Kevin Kline.  No one can do quirky and amiable as well as Kline, he’s got an Oscar to prove it, but here he’s saddled with a stoic good guy role that he’s paralyzed when asked to inject life into.  Kline cannot and should not play square jawed hero types which his role fundamentally amounts to.  His character’s only attributes are run of the mill nobility and friendliness.  When did John Wayne ever worry about being friendly?  Riding at his side and fairing a bit better is Scott Glenn, a man with a leathery face meant for westerns.  If Glenn had been born a bit sooner he could’ve been side by side with Eastwood, Bronson or Van Cleef.  Leone would’ve loved his face.  He should be the star of the film, but things are so crowded with dull, unnecessary characters he never breaks away from the pack.  They collectively strangle his bravado.  “Silverado” feels like it was supposed to be about his character, but someone on the other side of the camera decided against that.  A young and thin Kevin Costner gets a showy but minor part as his irrepressible brother.  There was the potential for a great duo here but once again any lasting impression that could be made is cut off because of too much filler.  When it’s finally over Costner’s character barely feels relevant.  Danny Glover hangs around acting humorless and popping out of rocks to save people when they need it.  The next year he would be too old for this shit and would be better off for it.  Brian Dennehy plays the same prick sheriff he played in “First Blood”, except with a different hat.  Jeff Goldblum is here waiting for David Cronenberg to call about that “Fly” remake.  Rosanna Arquette is that afore mentioned woman of virtue with no point.  The list goes on.

I’ve been wondering about “Silverado” for close to two decades.  That’s a long time to think about seeing a movie that turns out to be this uninteresting.  The movie feels like nothing more than tumbleweed blowing by.  If you’re not a boomer aged, western junkie, there’s no need to ride into this sunset.  Watch “Unforgiven” again.

Ten Word or Less Review: I like this poster much more than the film.

I’ve been trying to come up with something interesting to say about “A Boy and His Dog” since yesterday, but the fact is that there’s not a whole lot to drone on about.  It’s laced with odd moments to be sure, but on the whole doesn’t make a lasting impression.  It’s a forgotten 70’s sci-fi oddity featuring a young Don Johnson wondering through a post-apocalyptic land, all the while talking to a dog only he can hear. The dog is the educated party in their mismatched bantering.

Sort of “Mad Max” sans automobiles with a dash of “Beneath the Planet of the Apes” and “Lassie”, “Boy” fits in well enough with other various oddball sci-fi films of the decade, though it always feels small in scope which holds it back. Directed by western stalwart L.Q. Jones, “Boy” doesn’t amaze visually or have a lot of narrative strength.  It feels occasionally underwritten and as if scenes are missing.  No distinct plot really materializes until its final act when Johnson investigates the world below the barren desert.  Johnson delivers a great performance as he effortlessly converses with the internal narration of his canine co-star. Though often considered a bit of a weightless actor, Johnson was likely sold short because of his good looks.  Even here he seems too pretty to be wondering a world on the brink of extinction.  The shortcomings of “Boy” seem mostly due to a lack of budget and scope.  This land of desolation doesn’t appear much different from any number of others.  The film takes the kind surreal turn in its last act that only 70’s movies would really try.  “A Boy and His Dog” is an interesting nugget for sci-fi fans, but when it’s over it doesn’t leave much after taste.  All in all it’s a decent but minor thing.