Thursday, July 31, 2008

Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter Thompson

Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter Thompson (Alex Gibney, 2008) [7]

Gibney has created a thorough and at times captivating documentary on Thompson but for someone like myself, who has read and knows just about everything about the man, there isn't much in this film that is new. That doesn't mean that it isn't an enjoyable film, because it is. Gibney's greatest strength is that the film examines Thompson and the cultural persona he created as much as Thompson the author. We get Thompson's story through a variety of talking heads, from family to close friends to fellow authors. The film makes the case that Thompson was a immensely talented author, and his work on the Hell's Angels, the '72 Presidential campaign, and other events of the early 70s was the basis for the New Journalism movement as well as some of the most culturally significant writing of the era. Johnny Depp provides narration of Thompson's writing throughout at moments that really bring out the best elements in his writing. The excerpts from Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas and Fear & Loathing on the Campaign Trail show that beyond his Gonzo tendencies, Thompson could tap into something deeper, a keen understanding of how America operated and the path it was going to go down. While praising Thompson's work, the film also shows how that Dr. Gonzo personality overtook Thompson and led to a period of sub par writing and a characterization of the man that overshadowed everything else. Gibney pulls no strings in stating that the last twenty-five years of Thompson's life was him struggling with the persona his over indulgences had created. It's all well-done and entertaining but for any serious Thompson fan, it's nothing new. That Gibney creates parallels from Thompson's writing on Nixon to the current administration isn't surprising, with his prescient September 11th piece from showing his understanding of the situation. That the film ends with the interviewees stating how Thompson is needed now more than ever tells all you really need to know about the man.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

The Grand

The Grand (Zak Penn, 2008) [4]

Penn's mockumentary of the world of high stakes poker suffers from a few problems. One, a cast full of funny people improving doesn't necessarily mean a funny movie. Two, the film suffers from having come two or three years too late to catch the poker boom. Third and perhaps most, the film suffers from the Christopher Guest effect; if every film of this type is going to be compared to Guest's films, it clearly pales in comparison. Fair or not, The Grand isn't consistent enough in its humor to really be considered much more than a Guest knockoff. The plot centers around Jack Faro (Woody Harrleson), just out of rehab, as he enters The Grand Championship of Poker in order to save his grandfather's casino to a egotistical developer (Michael McKean doing a crummy Trump variation). That serves as a springboard to be able to introduce a parade of characters, all interpretations of the various personalities televised poker has presented over the years. The problem here is that for those who have never watched poker, they'll wonder why some of these people act the way they do and those who know will find some of the characters to be weak imitations of real people who aren't that interesting to begin with. Faro is the only one who doesn't fall into a ready-made persona but he's the character who gets too few of the laughs. All the others have one or two funny moments but it's only Chris Parnell as a socially stunted math genius and Richard Kind playing the clueless amateur that bring any consistent laughs out of the film, mostly because they stretch the limits of their characters. David Cross and Cheryl Hines, on the other hand, fail a bit because they play characters like the real people at these events who are unlikable in the first place. And not that funny. The poker action is without much tension and too staged to advance the plot to really make it believable. If this film has just gone out there and become surreal and bizarre (as some brief instances of Werner Herzog's character bring out), it may have not turned into such a bore.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

My Blueberry Nights

My Blueberry Nights (Wong Kar Wai, 2008) [5]

Wong's English language debut isn't horrible but it feels so slight and unfocused that I just can't seem to recommend it. It feels too flatly acted, with a few exceptions, and without real focus of emotion that turns it into a disappointment of sorts. Seeing how I've been a huge fan of Wong's last two efforts, the film doesn't appear to be in the same category. Norah Jones plays Elizabeth, a restless young woman going through a troubling break-up that gives her opportunities to meet a variety of characters. Some reviews have stated that Jones can't act but she fills her role fine. Her character isn't really meant to be the tent pole of the film; she is more there to be acted upon by the other characters, rather than to carry the film on her own personality. All this leads to the greater problem is that none of these other characters, other than David Strathairn's performance, which grows on me even after, fall noticeably flat in any resonance. Strathairn's lovelorn drunk is the type of character that Jones's Lizzy yearns to be and the only one capable of capturing what Wong seems to want to get across through this story. Jude Law, Natalie Portman, and Rachel Weisz are mainly forgettable in their performances. The plot itself follows the kind of interpretation of a cinematic America that can be found in Wim Wenders. I frankly prefer Wenders's version. While it may be a cinematic reality, Wong's film doesn't have enough of a grounding in something I can find in reality to make me care. In something like Paris, Texas, there is the payoff scene in the theatre. There's is nothing of that magnitude in My Blueberry Nights to make it that memorable.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

In the Year of the Pig

In the Year of the Pig (Emile de Antonio, 1968) [7]

While a bit dry in spots, this film is a well researched and effective documentary. It certainly has a political agenda but is always level-headed and not shriekingly partisan as some political documentaries of today. Instead of focusing on the American combat mission, the film takes a more historical overview of Vietnam. The emphasis is on how the Vietnamese has been a constant struggle for Independence and how Ho Chi Minh is a national figure second to none in that nation. All of it leads to the central idea that the Vietnam war is (or was) an unwinnable war. de Antonio uses a wealth of different footage, most of it found footage, to get his message across and constructs a film effective in emphasizing its political message. Having seen this film years ago in a found footage class taught by experimental filmmaker Martin Arnold, it was definitely one of the more interesting pieces seen in a class focused mostly on experimental film. It doesn't quite hold up in esteem since that first viewing, mostly because of its tedious history lesson tone at times. Even with its detriments, it works and has clear parallels to the situation in Iraq and the documentaries born out of that conflict.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Funny Games Double Feature

Funny Games (Michael Haneke, 1997) [7]
This films should be considered as a deconstructive instrument more than a film. The plot and characterization are not elaborate, they're just there to serve as the vehicle for Haneke's ideas. Addressing the casual association violence has with violence, Funny Games takes the viewer into completely uncomfortable territory by using violence that is much more psychologically jarring that a standard blow-em-up action picture. It is incredibly unsettling and it achieves its objective not just through its violence but through the Brechtian tactics of breaking down the fourth wall. The killers take time to address the viewer and address the notion of reality and the film world, of the viewers' allegiances, and what is and should be acceptable in film violence.
To back up a bit, the plot of the film focuses on a bourgeoisie Austrian family heading out to their lake house for a vacation. Once there, two young men meet them and play out violent, sadistic acts on the family. These are not in the grotesque vein of the Saw and Hostel-style torture porn but a much more psychological violence that to me is much more effective. It raises the question of why those horror films and their explicit violence are nothing noteworthy but the relatively tame acts of these two in this film is much more horrifying in its own way. That is one of the themes Haneke is addressing here, pushing boundaries and tolerance. The film is meant solely to provoke a reaction, one of disgust that most violence in other American cinema no longer does. It does this by having the characters address the viewer, letting them know that they have an interest in these characters' well-being. The killers are also smart enough to realize that you as the viewer are going to side with the family, and hope they can somehow escape the situation. That what makes the film effective but what also makes it practically unlikable. You want these characters to escape but at the same time, it's in the back of your mind that it's practically impossible. Haneke gives the characters and the viewer glimmers of hope but they eventually collapse.
Haneke's mastery of the shots in the film make it effective without actually showing that much explicit violence. It's moments like the extended shot of the living room after one violent episode that do much more in getting inside the mind than any act of violence. The film is a series of brutal moments after the next but that's its aim and it exceeds despite any reservations about story or content.

Funny Games (Michael Haneke, 2008) [6]
This is essentially a shot by shot remake of the original, only this time starring more American friendly names like Naomi Watts and Tim Roth. It works about the same as the original but it begs the question why remake it in the first place. In fact, I prefer the more cold, reserved European aesthetics of the original in its impact. Maybe since Haneke is addressing the American fascination with film violence, making the film a little bit more palatable for an American audience makes sense. That doesn't explain why a lot of critical reviews barely mention the original as if this was some brand new film and the original can be discounted. It doesn't make any sense.

Thursday, July 10, 2008


Rififi (Jules Dassin, 1955) [9]

Rififi has been called the template for all other heist films that have come after it and for good reason. There are few scenes as memorable in film as the jewel heist scene in this film, taking up about a quarter of the film and with absolutely no dialogue. It's completely impressive and expertly done but it isn't the only reason this is a great film. All the elements of this film have come to define characteristics of the heist noir, from the characters to the eventual demise of what appeared to be a perfect plan. Tony (played with the right amount of stoic reserve by Jean Servais) has just recently been released from prison and is looking for his girlfriend on the outside. After finding out she has hooked up with shady gangster characters, Tony gets a group together for one last big score. It's a motley assortment of hoods and safe crackers that has become commonplace in film of its type today. It's a testament to Rififi that these type of characters have become that iconic. They pull off the robbery only to have one of the group succumb to the charms of a woman and let everything out into the open. The gangsters get wind and confront Tony to hand over the jewels. Once again, everything here plot wise has been done before but at the time, it was something new and unique. These elements, when done right, always create a great noir storyline filled with suspense. The ending gets a little bit bogged down in familial melodrama but it's not enough to dull the rest of the film. Dassin handles the material deftly. While the heist sequence is the showcase, there are many other directorial touches that are quite nice. Dassin has always had a way of utilizing his settings to maximum effect, whether it be London in Night and the City or New York in The Naked City. He treats Paris the same way here, paying particular attention to the neighborhoods of the action and making them feel like a character on its own. The sequence at the end, where Tony is racing against his ultimate demise is fantastic filmmaking, the camera racing through the streets of Paris. It's a great technical achievement but there's so much more to it. Dassin gives what could have been a cold, calculating noir some real life, an appreciation for characters and setting, and creating a lasting thriller.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Mr. Freedom

Mr. Freedom (William Klein, 1969) [5]

Klein's scathing satire of America's jingoistic bullying has never been readily available for viewing until this recent release as part of Criterion's Eclipse series. While the film get some points for being brutally harsh, the whole never quite adds up to make a great film. I've always held the belief that satire is either really good or really bad. While not completely either, Mr. Freedom misses its mark. The story revolves around a quasi super hero named Mr. Freedom, part of Freedom, Inc., a company whose goal appears to be spreading America's political and economic message around the world. Mr. Freedom has been dispatched to France, where Marxist and Chinese elements are undermining freedom and the like. Mr. Freedom arrives and bullies his way around attempting to get his way. When the French people reject him, Mr. Freedom has no choice but to blow the shit out of the country. It all plays out a little too ham-handed for me to really agree with it, but it fits into the kind of comic book mind the film has. The character of Mr. Freedom is a stock comic character, a la Captain America but Klein gets under the jingoistic facade to expose a scary underbelly. Mr. Freedom is an overt racist, and the beginning of the film shows him crashing into a black family's apartment and shooting one of them, thinking they're looters. It's incredibly harsh and while it may work to a certain degree, it really overshadows any of the more clever satire in the film. Those moments have less to do with Mr. Freedom himself but the skewering of the consumerist culture America has exported throughout the world. The best moment is when Mr. Freedom arrives in France and heads to the U.S. Embassy, which is essentially a supermarket. If there was a bit more of that, I may have liked it more. The other real flaw which just takes me out of the film is that the dialogue is horrible synced at times; it shouldn't make a difference and Klein was still a novice filmmaker at the time, but come on, you can do better than that.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Lust, Caution

Lust, Caution (Ang Lee, 2007) [5]

While visually arresting at times and precisely crafted by Lee, there are just too many moments in Lust, Caution that miss the correct mark that makes it comes across as stuffy and dull at too many moments. The word I keep thinking of to describe this film is hermetic, as in sealed. Everything is nice to look at, thanks to Rodrigo Prieto's cinematography, but it all feel cased in like a museum piece. As such, it's too hard for the viewer to really immerse themselves in the world of the film and all too often stuck admiring the film and not getting much out of it. It's a testament to Lee's abilities as a director to be able to at least craft a splendid looking film even though the story and characters don't really help him out much. The crux of the film is centered on the relationship between Mr. Yee (Tony Leung), the cautious government official and Wong (a good but not great Wei Tang), a secret agent for the Chinese resistance. The problem is the film takes way too long to get to the biggest moments of their relationship and the plot. Once they get there, the emotional timbre of the film feels off, again due to the hermetic nature of the film. The rigid look and setting of the film allow for no effective emotions to really get in between the two and when the film attempts to really make its moments, they feel fairly lackluster. Even someone with a good grasp on filmmaking as Ang Lee cannot get enough out of the characters. That idea hinges on the sexual nature of the relationship and of course, the sex scenes, which for me feel neither that necessary or erotic. The film just doesn't have enough of a variety of things: emotion, eroticism, historical exposition to make it work no matter how good it looks.