Tuesday, September 30, 2008

The Band's Visit

The Band's Visit (Eran Kolirin, 2007) [7]

What could have very easily been a one-joke premise film, The Band's Visit is injected with enough filmmaking skill and understanding of character to actually make it funny, endearing, and smart. It would have been all too easy to milk the overall premise of the film, an Egyptian Police band becoming stranded in the Israeli hinterlands, into a film with a lot of cheap fish-out-of-water jokes. Or it easily could have boiled down to simplified ideas about Arabs and Israelis. Instead, Kolirin goes beyond the surface and uses the stranding of the band to get deep into his characters. There isn't much political hand wringing and no greater social message Kolirin is trying to squeeze out of the situation and his characters. He tells the story of his characters regardless of who they are, and the film works because of it. What comes out of it is a story of loneliness, of two characters, the uptight band conductor (Sasson Gabai) and a Israeli restaurant owner (Ronit Elkabetz) who find camaraderie in their shared experiences. There are some peripheral story lines but none really capture the mood of the film and what it's trying to say more than the interaction of these two. It all comes across as not trying to say too much about larger issues but instead uses the personal story to create sympathetic characters. The film, shot in a static, deadpan way, helps accent the stark emptiness of the setting, which in turn emphasizes the traits of the two main characters. It all creates a film that works in not taking itself that serious but still saying something about its characters.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Listening Post - September 2008

This past Tuesday saw a huge amount of intriguing new releases but since I haven't been able to hear all of them yet, I feel I should get what I have been listening to out of the way.

The Walkmen - You & Me
Okkervil River - The Stand Ins
Loudon Wainwright III - Recovery
The Broken West - Now or Heaven

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Coming Home

Coming Home (Hal Ashby, 1978) [8]

By eschewing a heavily polemic view of the Vietnam era, and instead focusing on a love story, Coming Home is a film that is much more thoughtful and accessible than if you were to look who made it. It's a thoughtful, earnest film that's never preachy and while it doesn't want to tell you how to think, it really reinforces that the conflict in Vietnam hurt more than it helped. Jane Fonda plays Sally Hyde, a wife of a Marine captain (Bruce Dern) that decides to volunteer at a VA hospital in her husband's absence. She meets Luke (Jon Voight), a former high school classmate and veteran who became a paraplegic. The two form a romantic relationship as both Sally and Luke have to come to terms with how the war is/has changed them. Sally, always the obedient wife in the shadows, really comes to grips with how many men are coming back from the war scarred, physically and psychologically. Luke has to adjust to a world where everyone is trying their best to ignore that a war even happened. Looking back on this and knowing Fonda and some of the other actors' political history, the film is remarkably rational and thoughtful. Even though the war may have been wrong, the film still shows compassion for those who fought it. Conservatives may not agree but their idea of a accurate portrayal of Vietnam would be The Green Berets. A lot of credit has to go to Hal Ashby to recognize that the personal story in these characters still takes precedent over making a political point. The film is an anti-war movie but it attempts to address and understand veteran's issues that not many at the time would want to hear about. Ashby knows how to get the best out of the actors, to make them well thought out people with earned problems and emotions rather than a series of symbols. It leads to an ending that is incredibly effective as well as a right way to end. While it has no battle sequences or military analysis, Coming Home is still one of the more honest portrayals of the Vietnam era put on film.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

The Last Detail

The Last Detail (Hal Ashby, 1973) [6]
The Last Detail is an alright film, but I find nothing about it that's very exceptional. It's not flashy stylistically, and Ashby gives his actors plenty of room to go where they want to go; while normally positives in Ashby's work, the film seems slight. The film feels to go along at one steady pace the entire time, never ratcheting or relieving the tone of it. It makes sense to be this way, since the film is documenting the mundane, strangling existence of Navy life but it doesn't resonate with me for whatever reason. Jack Nicholson and Otis Young play two Navy lifers assigned a duty to transport a young sailor (Randy Quaid) to Portsmouth Naval Prison. They find out Meadows (Quaid) is going to do 8 years for stealing a collection box for a Polio charity. That crime is where the film takes an anti-authoritarian voice as the trio drink it up and try to give Meadows some fun before his imprisonment. Nicholson plays the type of character that screams 'Jack Nicholson character' and that may be an unintentional consequence of history seeing the film thirty-five years later. Quaid is good at playing a green young man that ended up in a bad situation. The real saving factor of the film is Robert Towne's script. It's profanity and moments of freewheeling anarchy add an anti-authoritarian undertone to the film. All three characters bristle at some of the domineering aspects of being in the Navy. The one thing that the film does recognize is that as much as these characters have their problems with Navy life, there's no way they can really fight it. The really do have no where else to go. Perhaps that's what makes The Last Detail a little disappointing. No matter how much you think or want these characters to do something, to show they wont take this drudgery, they are completely incapable.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Putney Swope

Putney Swope (Robert Downey, 1969) [5]

Putney Swope certainly hasn't aged that well and I'm never quite sure how effective a piece of satire it really was to begin with. There are moments in the film's take no prisoners approach that work successfully, most notably the advertising sequences, but the larger issue of race and late 60s radicalism don't feel that fleshed out and are there to be taken advantage because they can. Downey may get some credit for addressing the issue at the time but his execution, while barbed, comes off as too superficial and amateurish to be called great satire. Some of this can't be faulted too much because the film is a low budget indie but the execution leaves something to be desired. The story centers on the title character, the token black man at an advertising agency. When the president of the agency dies, and with the other board members unable to vote for themselves, Swope accidentally gets voted in because the others think that no one else will vote him in. Swope proceeds to fire everyone except one token white and replace the board with black radicals. Swope vows a new form of advertising, to get truth and soul out. This is where we get the commercials featuring an orgy used to sell airlines and a limbless man praising an insurance company. The faux ads are by far the cleverest satire in the film, as the stiff and unoriginal portrayal of Swope and his radical counterparts falls flat. Swope eventually becomes no better than the men he replaced, being consumed with the greed and hubris that come with his "remarkable" ideas. That Swope's comeuppance is never really earned fuels the uneven nature of the film.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

The Counterfeiters

The Counterfeiters (Stefan Ruzowitzky, 2008) [6]

When I was in film school, one of my professors was the noted experimental filmmaker Martin Arnold, who was from Austria. He once told a story that Austrian feature filmmaking was one of the most incompetent and awful bodies of cinema in the world. That really has nothing to do with The Counterfeiters but the thought ran through my mind the entire time watching this and perhaps clouding my judgement about this. After all, this was the first Austrian film to win a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, which says something about Arnold's theory. Ruzowitzky creates a fast-paced, tightly constructed film that unfortunately, doesn't do anything film wise or plot wise to make it rise above "been there, seen that" material in regards to Holocaust material. The only difference here is the story, based on Operation Bernhard, a operation by the Nazis using Jewish prisoners to counterfeit British and American currency to help fund their last ditch efforts at the end of WWII. The film is filtered through the character of Sally (Karl Markovics), a master counterfeiter and Jew brought to the operation to be the quality control man. Once the Sally the character is established, a lot of what happens next is to be expected. We get the moral quandaries of the ones working on the project, spared by their skills while others are dying among them. There's the archetypal martyr character, determined to let principle stand above all else. There's also the ambiguous nature of the SS man in charge of the camp (played with pitch perfect smarm and sleaze by Devid Striesow), more concerned with his own personal well-being than any ideology. While it all makes for an intriguing story, the film still falls short in being great. Ruzowitzky handles the material enough to make it work, but his direction falls into too may telegraphed shots and scenes. The film never raises itself above the middlebrow standard of films that usually win the Foreign Language Oscar. Despite its taut nature, The Counterfeiters still has a way making me feel less than enthused about it.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

3 Marx Brothers Films

Prolonged sickness has put me behind on my viewing and writing. These Marx Brothers films have been gestating for a while but am now just getting out.

The Cocoanuts (Robert Florey & Joseph Santley, 1929)/A Night at the Opera (Sam Wood, 1935)/A Day at the Races (Sam Wood, 1937) [4]/[7]/[6]

The only other Marx Brothers film I had seen up until these three was Duck Soup, the critical pinnacle of their film career but a film also notable for being a commercial flop. That film is almost straight front to back comic anarchy, with jokes and gags flying haphazardly all over. The three film being reviewed here all pale in comparison because there are too many elements present in them that take away that anarchistic spirit or take the brothers out of certain films completely. It may have been what audiences at the time would have wanted to see but it seen through these eyes, almost pointless in its misdirection.

The Cocoanuts is pretty much a complete mess with the exception of a couple of scenes involving Groucho and Chico. The film is just poorly structured with too many pointless, overlong musical numbers that have not much to do with the film's plot. Granted that plot has not a lot to do with any Marx Brothers film, but this one is even more frivolous than most. The transfer leaves a lot to be desired in spots but that's a bit of nitpicking. This one does deserve a pass because it was the brothers' first film.

After the commercial flop of Duck Soup, the brothers headed to MGM and made their two most commercially successful films, A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races. While the improvement in production values is certainly a plus, once again the ability of pointless musical numbers to suck the life out of the film at moments is no less present here. A Night at the Opera is a little bit better overall, mostly because it can have these musical moments a bit more plausible. Each film has its share of memorable scenes and gags but I feel that A Day at the Races is a bit better in terms of Groucho's one-liners and scenes that go closer to careening out of control. It would have been the better film except that it has an inexplicable, racially insensitive and stereotyping musical number with African-Americans that is wholly unnecessary.

All in all, you don't go to Marx Brothers films looking for classic cinema. What these films offer are moments of comic brilliance and that's all you can really ask out of comedy: to give you a laugh for that brief moment. The Marx brothers' film history is cemented not in the overall quality of their work but in moments of inspired comic anarchy.