Friday, November 30, 2007

Before the Devil Knows You're Dead

Before the Devil Knows You're Dead (Sidney Lumet, 2007) [8]

When I think of Sidney Lumet's films, I think of them being expertly crafted and enjoyable but I never happen to think of the man as an auteur. It's that craftsman like precision that really keeps Lumet from having the identifiable style of contemporaries like Scorsese and Altman. After seeing this film, I happen to feel the same way. This is an excellent thriller with some tremendous performances and fantastic moments but still lacks just a little bit.

Andy (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) and Hank (Ethan Hawke) are some brothers who need money. Andy comes up the idea to rob their parents jewelry store, the idea being that it's as close as you can get to the perfect crime. The problem is the robbery doesn't go as easily as planned and the rest of the film goes back and forth between characters and time to tell of the crime's reasons, planning, and consequences. Lumet jumps back and forth into time and his emphasis on character's. One sequence will focus on Hank after the robbery and we get some information that gets thrown about on Andy which is explained more in depth when Andy becomes the focus of the story. This non-linear storyline makes the film much more interesting than if it was told in a straight line. It fractured and frantic pace help re-enforce that the characters feel the same, racing to decipher everything that's going on. My one qualm is that Lumet does this a little too overtly, spelling out this is 'Andy: one week after the robbery' etc. and using a jarring flashing to change perspective. I know the perception of the average moviegoer is that they're a moron but someone of Lumet's stature isn't getting that audience. Give me a little more respect; I can figure out what's going on without having to be told who the story's focusing on now.

The performances here are solid especially Hoffman as the bullying, oily older brother. Ethan Hawke, who I don't care much about, does a good job playing the younger, weaker brother. There are some scenes between the two after everything has unraveled that are just electric, with Hoffman stealing the scene. Hawke is smart enough to know Hank's role and let Hoffman dominate. Albert Finney is there to fill the need of the father, whose relationship with his sons plays a key underlying plot point in the film. As the story progresses and things get more unhinged, the film becomes more than just a heist film. It becomes about family, the bonds that it creates and also the dysfunction that can lasting consequences. There's a lot of baggage between all three of these characters and the robbery becomes a microcosm to explore everyone and their issues. Lumet does a great job of laying all this out even though I'm not quite sold on the end. Even at 83, Sidney Lumet can still show younger filmmakers how to make a entertaining and very good film.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Glengarry Glen Ross

Glengarry Glen Ross (James Foley, 1992) [9]

On many occasions, it may seem when reviewing films, that I spend more time talking about arcane ideas like form and composition of images. Story and acting are never really that important when talking about auteur theory and aesthetics. This film is all dialogue and performances and I happen to think it's exceptional at those areas. If you want to talk about it as a film, it isn't much more than a filmed stage play but after all, that's all it was. This isn't real James Foley's film, even though he does a good job of standing back and letting his actors chew their meaty roles. (Side note: James Foley is the only notable director that I've ever met; it's not important to the review, I just wanted to get it out there.) David Mamet and his dialogue are still the stars of the film. It crackles with sarcasm, profanity, desperation, and an utter lack of candor. Even though it's big and loud, the dialogue is all we know of the salesman and their world, the phantom (?) properties, and what is exactly going on. It's never clear whether this whole real estate business is a scam, and whose these people really are beyond their bluster. It's never really that important in that the whole film is in the now, not concerned with any past. The film really hinges on the actors' performances and really they couldn't be much better. Pacino, Harris, and Baldwin are perfect for their parts but no discussion can go on further without Jack Lemmon as Shelley. Clearly the basis for my favorite Simpsons character, Gil, Lemmon plays Shelley with a mix of desperation, envy, and failure that sums up everything about the film. Shelley constantly lives in the past, touting himself as 'the machine', of bragging of past accomplishments mostly because he has no where else to go but to the absolute bottom. It's really what these characters are grasping for; fighting to accomplish something (a Cadillac, good leads, the feeling of success) in order to stave off the stench of failure and total defeat that looms over the entire picture. It's a fight that by the end ends with its expected outcome.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

The Essential Collection - Out of the Past

Out of the Past (Jacques Tourneur, 1947) [10]

Tournerur is one of the great forgotten noir directors and I'm hard pressed to find another film noir that is as great as this one. Quite simply, it's one of my favorite films ever made. Robert Mitchum is perfect as Jeff Markham or Jeff Bailey, depending on the situation, a "detective" that gets ensnared with a femme fatale played by Jane Greer and shadowy rich man, done with the right amount of smug charm by Kirk Douglas. The true meat and potatoes of the story are like many other noirs, full of twists, set-ups, and double crosses. Markham was initially hired by Sterling (Douglas) to track down the femme fatale who had shot him and stole his money. Markham tracks her down in Mexico only to become enamored by her and help her allude Sterling. Their entanglements eventually lead to a murder and situation in which Markham retreats to a small town and becomes Bailey. Sterling's men happen to track Bailey down and he owing them a big favor, has no choice but to accept. Of course it's a set-up and once again, Bailey's weakness shows as the woman entraps him. There's no outcome but an untimely death.

What is unique about this film is how it tells its story. The entire background story is told in a flashback, Mitchum doing the first-person narration. The entire narrative ellipses takes up most of the first half of the film, in which we learn everything about who Bailey was and how he ended up where he was. It's odd to see a studio film of the era use elliptical narrative structure so prominently and more so, so successfully. The story told in the flashback flows so seamlessly that it never feels clunky or a waste. It's most important because that sequence is crucial to developing the characters for the second half of the film. Mitchum excels as the typical noir protagonist, an (now) ordinary man thrown into extraordinary circumstances. He plays Jeff with the right amount of casual indifference and grim understanding of what exactly he got himself into with Kathie. He recognizes his weakness at resisting women and Greer plays her role with the steely understanding that Jeff will do almost anything she asks. They're performances of what you expect out of any film noir with their mannerisms and language but somehow they make it seem go beyond genre. Tourneur's direction is flawless in that he doesn't let film noir stereotypes take over. He lets the actors act and the story do its work. Out of the Past also goes beyond genre; sometimes, film noir is held to different standards than other films but this is a great film, film noir or not.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Stranger Than Paradise

Stranger Than Paradise (Jim Jarmusch, 1985) [8]

Jarmusch's minimalist debut film is a richer, much more complex film than it appears on its surface. It deals with many more deeper meanings than just its deadpan exterior. A lot of the praise for the film really ignores the story itself and deals mostly with its form, a series of static sequences all delivered with a dry, deadpan sense of humor. There's a lot I like about Jarmusch's style but also happen to feel what happens in this film also is interesting. Willie is an immigrant now living in New York, hustling with his friend Eddie to make a living. His life gets thrown out of whack by his visiting cousin from Hungary, Eva, on her way to Cleveland. It's clear that the two have not much in common from their tastes in music to clothing. By using the form he does, Jarmusch is really able to strip a lot of extraneous elements away so the ideas of foreigners and assimilation really come to mind. It's this clash of differing cultures that gives the film its humor, especially the scene with the t.v. dinners. Eventually Eva goes to Cleveland and after a questionable poker game, Willie and Eddie decide to take a road trip. They visit Eva and Aunt Lotte. They go to see Lake Erie but its frozen and windswept. The three decide to head to Florida, to perceived paradise. What happens in Florida can be described as a bit of misunderstandings that allow for a humorous ending. It may not seem like much is going on in the story, but I feel that Jarmusch is describing America to some extent. Someone like Eva comes to America expecting big things but is stuck in a lousy job in a city with lousy weather. Willie and Eddie aren't much better off. The expectations of Florida is of a grand playground but all Jarmusch shows are race tracks, highways, and motels. The reason why this works instead of being pointless is that by using the structure of the film leaves some detachment for the viewer from the characters in all their restless glory. Stranger than Paradise paints a sketch of characters on the edges of the American dream who wish to find the promise of America but end up still searching. But Jarmusch creates an almost sealed off universe where America for these characters aren't palm trees and sunshine and is instead more drab and pointless than many of us would want to believe. What this film does show is maybe that world is more honest than the ideal one.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Hey! Why is this Bright Eyes concert get full of immature assholes?

Went to the glorious Magic City Music Hall in beautiful Johnson City, NY on Wednesday to see Bright Eyes' first and last performance in my hometown. When this was initially announced I was completely shocked, seeing that Magic City's forte is mostly washed-up classic rockers and shitty metal bands, and wondered what type of crowd would go. I just had a feeling that it wouldn't go that well, and I was sort of right. The crowd was pretty good sized but may have been the worst I've ever been a part of. Coming of age in the jam band scene makes going to a Bright Eyes concert an uncomfortable proposition and between all the plaid shirts and emo college kids, I really felt out of place. But what was the worst was the overall immaturity of the crowd. Between all constant talking and cell phone bullshit, it was like half of this crowd had never been to a concert before. This might have had something to do with looked like half the crowd being underage but still, that's no excuse from given the performers on stage a little respect. When a group is doing a quiet song, the audience should actually shut up and listen. Conor didn't really help himself as he grew perpetually drunker and belligerent as the night went on. I've heard about the drunk show stories and while it didn't really affect his overall performance, it was just another blight on the night. I could understand his frustration with the crowd though as the band actually cut one quieter song out because the crowd just wouldn't shut up. If the Binghamton area is actually wants to get more quality concerts, the people going to them should stop acting like assholes and appreciate an artist like Conor Oberst actually came. I doubt he'll ever be back again. At least I'll be in Portland in a couple of months where people actually appreciate actual music.

On an unrelated note but something I wanted to address, Norman Mailer, someone who I have great apprectiation for as an author, passed away last week. As a person, Mailer was a pretty dislikable man to many different groups and his general boorishness has a unique appeal. There's no denying that the man was a talented writer and that being a prick shouldn't disqualify his literary achievements. Read The Executioner's Song and find out.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Army of Shadows

Army of Shadows (Jean-Pierre Melville, 1969) [7]

Every once and a while, for whatever reason, I find it hard to get into a film. The most notable example of this was my first viewing Exotica, after which I didn't quite like. I changed my mind after a second viewing and hopefully the same can be said for this film, which I can't quite see as the masterpiece the majority of critical reviews have given it. The film is described as a thriller but there wasn't a whole lot of action. Melville pays crucial attention to the behaviors and interior processes of his characters more than their actions. Granted, there are a few action sequences throughout but I found the film more of a psychological examination of the French Resistance more than something like the Bourne films. The film's strength relies in its examination of the characters and their actions, led by mannered looking Philippe. Melville spends a lot of time focusing on reactions, letting the camera linger to capture the true emotion of the situations the characters are in. One of the main themes is the necessary actions of what those in the Resistance were doing but being knocked up against using ruthless tactics not that much different than the Nazis. Traitors must be executed, people will die, and these characters have to come to some acceptance of their actions. Netflix calls the film bleak and uncompromising, with which I have to agree, and maybe this might be the cause of my issue with the film. I just find it too strenuous at times with its omnipresent downbeat nature. I also feel the film was too long and maybe for one a little streamlining of action wouldn't be too bad. All this doesn't mean that I don't think Army of Shadows is a bad film; it isn't, it's just that I don't see the masterpiece that many want to believe.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Year of the Dog

Year of the Dog (Mike White, 2007) [5]

In Mike White's films, especially The Good Girl and Chuck & Buck, his characters very often have very disturbing personality traits but somehow manage to come across as harmless despite their disturbances. My biggest problem with this film is that is how Peggy (Molly Shannon) comes across to me and I just don't buy it. This doesn't mean Peggy's characterization is wrong; the supporting characters themselves are so wrapped up in their own preoccupations that they are all conveniently oblivious to Peggy's tailspin. The film as a whole works in its logic, it just my personal opinion that I don't like how it turns out. Peggy's transformation after the death of her dog turns her into a very traumatized and dangerous person. Peggy's deterioration comes off mostly as harmless and by the end, everything gets resolved, not completely happy, but there is resolution. What I'm trying to say is that I find it hard to believe what happens to here would not be noticed by somebody and the resolution of her conflict would be a little bit more substantive. Peggy turns into a vegan animal rights activist and while I don't think that automatically makes her a "nut", I think the way Shannon plays it makes it very hard to get away from some preconceived notions about PETA and their ilk. It's a shame my outside baggage weighs this film down because there are some really good performances here, especially by Shannon who does a great job skipping back and forth from emotional states. Even with all of her disturbances and trauma, her character still wants to be seen as harmless and for once in a Mike White written film, I have a hard time believing.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Knocked Up

Knocked Up (Judd Apatow, 2007) [6]

As I've stated before, I'm a huge fan of Freaks & Geeks and Undeclared which maybe means I'm expecting too much of Apatow's films. This along with the 40 Year Old Virgin have their laughs but they really aren't that impressive overall. This is a solidly executed film but it really isn't the kind of revelatory piece that critics painted it to be. Maybe when you release a film in the shitstorm that is the summer movie season, anything that is even watchable becomes a masterpiece. For the actual film, it just drags too much in the beginning and really only gets its footing (and most of its laughs) when the focus moves to the Rogen and Heigl characters' relationship issues. Too much of the film is spent on the sophomoric aspects of Ben's friends which I could really do without. Apatow formally as a director doesn't do anything but get the basics across, not doing anything to emphasize the emotional complexities the film has. It's rare to see a film like this tackle the issues of marriage and raising children with such a real mix of joy, humor, and depression as this. The greatest strength of the film is that it places all the neuroses of marriage and kids right out there, whether it be the doubt if you're in the right relationship or if you can actually be a fit father. The end of the film is quite conservative, and while I'm not begrudging it, it jostles with my sensibilities. Is it quite necessary? What exactly has Ben learned besides cleaning up his superficial personality traits? I guess it all comes down to what you want out of this film; if you wanted laughs and a tidy ending you got it but I think there could have been a bit more to what Knocked Up actually is.