Movie diary, 7/30/08-8/23/08
Oh and hey, today was a two-movie day. I watched "48 Hours" tonight, one of the many movies that people are generally stunned to learn that I haven't already seen. Generally, with my recent decision to try and catch up on movies, I only see stuff that I have a particular interest in, hence my decent knowledge of Italian horror movies and almost total lack of knowledge of 80s action movies, despite the later genre being far more popular. I decided to see this one, though, because Eddie Murphy is in it, and I love that dude. At least, I love the Eddie Murphy of the 80s. He really hasn't been the same for the past 15 years or so, but what are you gonna do? Anyway, this movie was interesting--it was like a transitional movie between the darker, New-Hollywood influenced action movies of the 70s, such as "Dirty Harry" and "The French Connection", and the flashier, funnier action movies of the 80s, such as "Die Hard" and "Lethal Weapon". Said transition made the movie a bit awkward at certain points--the darker vibe that parts of it had would occasionally run up against the obvious comic relief of Eddie Murphy's character in manners that strained the credibility of the overall plot, for example. However, as a whole, the movie worked about as well as any action movie does--which is to say that one must disregard the plot holes and glossing over of details that would obviously be problematic in real life. I did like how "48 Hours" was more realistic about one particular problem of this type than most action movies are--several times throughout the movie, Nick Nolte's character would be running through some crowded public area waving a gun and firing it rather indiscriminately, and he'd be stopped from completing an arrest by uniformed police officers who didn't recognize him as a fellow cop and just wanted to stop him from causing any further destruction. One could see this as the same sort of political preaching that the makers of "Dirty Harry" memorably engage in by letting the crook that Clint Eastwood busts get off scot-free after Eastwood apprehends him in an extralegal and overly violent manner. And maybe that's exactly what it is; I don't know who Walter Hill, the director of "48 Hours", is, and I don't know his political agenda. However, "Dirty Harry" nearly ruined the movie for me with its obvious and heavyhanded preaching, and "48 Hours" worked much better for me because it made its point (if there even was a point being made here--my initial interpretation of these moments in the movie as a concession to realism might actually be the case) without beating the viewer over the head with it and without straining plausibility too far in the direction of "Oh, the liberals will let anyone get away with anything, we need some old fashioned FASCISM around here!" bullshit that "Dirty Harry" engages in.
Overall verdict--not an outstanding movie, because too much of the time the line it straddles between 70s era and 80s era action/crime movies leaves it in an awkward position, where it is sort of like both and sort of neither. The makers couldn't have predicted that it would seem this way, of course, since doing so would have required watching 1987-era action movies 5 years before such things existed, but regardless, this transitional aspect dates the movie and, as I said, makes it awkward. Thankfully, Nick Nolte and Eddie Murphy do a good job in their roles, and the plot is exciting, and it kept my interest as it moved forward, which was enough to make up for some of the awkwardness the movie displays in other aspects. Not outstanding, as I said, but solid and enjoyable.
I watched something last night called "New York 1977: The Coolest Year In Hell". It was on VH1 Classic and I have no idea if it was a theatrically/video-released movie or something that was specifically prepared for VH1, but either way it ruled. It was a documentary about the exact thing the title would lead you to believe it was about--New York in 1977. They talked about everything from the Son Of Sam and the heated mayoral race to the power blackout and graffiti on trains to the twin explosions of disco and punk. The fact that they were able to accurately explain why all of these things happened at the same time in the same place, and that all of them probably fed off of each other, was really fascinating. And I particularly enjoyed the discussion of the way that a completely fucked socio-political environment could lead to a booming artistic environment. In a lot of ways, I know it sucked, but still, it made me wish I could have lived in New York back in the late 70s. I could empathize with the people at the end of the movie who talked about how New York was so tame now compared to how it was then, that it just bored them now.
Hey, I saw Tropic Thunder last night! I would say it's closer to "OK" than "awesome", as some would have it, though I must admit that Tom Cruise was outstanding. The part where he lays down some serious wisdom to Matthew McConnaughey while simultaneously dancing to "Apple Bottom Jeans" killed me. Other than that, Robert Downey Jr. was the best part of the movie, and honestly, I thought it started to lose steam towards the end. Too much plot. When you have a silly insane movie that is basically a shitload of jokes strung together, you don't want to get too complex with the plot, because it just kills the momentum. I don't think this movie was too terribly complex with it, but at the same time, they were more complex than they needed to be, and as a result some of the later parts were too much plot not enough laughs. That's OK, though, because there were a good many laugh out loud parts in the movie, and they were spread pretty well throughout. Not an outstanding example of a slapstick comedy, but a very good one nonetheless.
Addendum, 8/23: I wasn't really focused on writing a good movie diary entry when I wrote this, and now that I am, I feel I should mention that the biggest problems with this movie came towards the end, when too much backstory was attempted for Ben Stiller's character. This was where things really started to lose steam, and I started to notice time passing, which is something a viewer of a comedy movie shouldn't ever notice. If a good 10 minutes of Ben Stiller backstory had been cut, this movie would have been much better, and since it was some of the most plot-oriented and least humor-oriented stuff in the movie, it really slowed the film down and hurt my overall opinion of it. It was still a really funny movie, but I probably would have enjoyed it more if I had been watching it on DVD on a couch at a friend's house, and we had gotten bored and had minor conversations over most of the Ben Stiller plot stuff. Which is a shame, because most of the rest of the movie is outstanding, particularly Robert Downey Jr. and Tom Cruise.
I finally watched another fucking movie. "The Public Enemy", from 1931, famously starring James Cagney smashing a grapefruit into Mae Clarke's face. This movie could probably have been better if it was made 10 years later, as there are definitely points in it where I could see the motion picture industry's growing pains. The dialogue is sometimes stilted, the action sometimes overly telegraphed... lots of scenery-chewing, I guess, though that's not exactly how it seemed as I was watching it. It was just the adaptation of the film art to the possibility of understatement, which wasn't yet a completed process. You can see some of this in another movie from 1931, "M", which I unabashedly love. Peter Lorre, oh my god. Anyway, that's not the movie I'm talking about right now, and the movie I am talking about right now is not quite as amazing as "M" (I probably say that in part because I'm not a German speaker and therefore rely on subtitles and don't quite pick up on how much chewing of the scenery is actually going on in the film), but "The Public Enemy" still had moments that sliced through the awkwardness of early motion pictures and hit home in a big way. That one with Cagney and the grapefruit was one of the best--a real honest moment of human interaction in the middle of a movie that's sometimes overly riddled with cliches, at least to a 21st century viewer. Then again, Cagney's such a great actor that at least his part completely overrides the fact that it's the stuff gangster movie cliches were eventually made of. Edward Woods as his sidekick Matt Doyle is not bad either, especially since his less tough-as-nails portrayal draws a necessary contrast between his character and that of Cagney's Tom Powers. I also really enjoyed Leslie Fenton's portrayal of Nails Nathan, the oil-slick gangster-turned-socialite gladhanding everybody.
Problems: the female characters were pretty much NOT fleshed out at all. Jean Harlow, about whom a big deal is often made when this movie is discussed, is pretty much a cute mannequin. Sure, she's kinda cute in her flapper chic, but she barely talks! Mae Clarke is only interesting as a recipient of a grapefruit to the face--which is not to say that this scene could be even one iota more awesome. I was afraid that all the hype I'd heard about it over the years would dull its impact for me, but I shouldn't have worried. That said, I wish the women had more to do in this movie. They're almost all doormats, just objects for the men to react to. Yes, it's typical for 1931, but that doesn't make it OK. By the way, Ma Powers is a notable exception, perhaps only because of her portrayal in the last scene, happy that her son is coming home... even as a scene of unimaginable bleakness is unfolding elsewhere in her house. Speaking of which, I loved this ending, and although the impact was slightly blunted by a moralistic title card inserted directly afterwards, it still blew me away. The scene near the end, of Cagney staggering through the rain with a bullet in his gut and blood running down his forehead, was also pretty outstanding. A lot of the plot during the middle of the movie just blurs together for me, all the booze-running and such, but I found the opening scenes with Tom and Matt as kids, played by child actors, to be surprisingly vital as well.
This movie is about as good as one can reasonably expect for a film from 1931. There were definitely moments in it that I felt presaged the French nouvelle vague, which I'm sure also makes it a big influence on the American noir films of the 40s. But of course, one can't deny the awkward, stiff moments, which are there to some extent. On the whole, flawed, but quite good nonetheless. And I'm gonna have to see some more James Cagney movies.
Woke up early this morning, decided to finally make myself watch "The Bicycle Thief". It was not what I'd wanted to be at the top of my Netflix queue when it came, and I've heard nothing but depressing stuff about it since it got here, so it's taken me three weeks to get around to watching it. That's three weeks in which my Netflix payments have been totally wasted. So of course, I wanted to get it out of here, but I felt bad sending it back unwatched, and I really didn't want to watch it, so it took me a long time to put it on. But I woke up this morning with some extra time and it seemed like the natural point at which to get it over with. So I put it on.
You can't call this a noir movie, or an Italian New Wave movie, or anything like that. It's from 1948 and it takes place almost entirely during bright sunshine (there is a scene that involves driving rain, but even this is in the evening). But boy, did it have a bleak feeling to it. It takes place in postwar Italy (because that's where and when it was made) and it's about a guy who finally gets a job placement from the government--which is apparently a relief, since everyone is living off of welfare rolls that it seems are providing slightly less than subsistence-level funds. The guy needs a bicycle for his job, and he's long since pawned his, so he goes home and tells his wife, and she pawns the sheets that were given to her as part of her dowry, which provides just enough cash for the guy to get his bicycle out of hock. So he goes off to work the next day (after dropping off his 8 year old son, not at school, but at what appears to be a job sweeping up at a gas station), works for a few hours wheatpasting movie posters, and has his bike stolen while he's up on a ladder. The thief gets away from him, and it's all downhill from there. The rest of the movie is he and his son desperately searching for the thief and the bicycle, with things getting worse and worse as they search. I don't want to say any more, because while that description might make you think the movie gets boring pretty quickly (I was expecting it to), a lot actually happens during their search. I wasn't expecting anything good to happen, and my expectations were met. By the end of the movie, sure enough, I felt terrible. It was a heartbreaking movie, and reminded me of every time something really random and unjust happened to me in my life, and I had no recourse. That powerless feeling is possibly the worst emotion a human being can feel. I'll give director Vittorio De Sica credit for capturing it, and doing so powerfully, but man... I was right to not even want to watch this movie. It was a bit too much, in the end. Ruined my mood for hours.
Apparently I am a creature of extremes where watching movies is concerned, because I've now seen another movie--"Who Gets To Call It Art?" This is a documentary that tells two stories at once: the life and times of Henry Geldzahler, an influential curator of contemporary art in the New York City art scene of the later 20th century, and a history of the art scene that he was involved with, encompassing postwar abstract expressionism and pop art. I randomly DVR-ed this movie months and months ago because I was flipping through a list of movies that were going to be on Sundance (and IFC as well, no doubt) in the then-near future, and thought it sounded interesting based on the description. I didn't know anything about Henry Geldzahler before I watched the movie--had never even heard of him--and didn't know anything more than the most basic facts of the art scene he was involved with. Still and all, I found the movie fascinating. I'm generally interested in any avant-garde, underground art movement of any sort, and even though the visual arts are probably the creative art I pay the least attention to, that statement is no less true of movements within the visual arts. So I was interested for that reason, and loved all the period footage of artists working in the grotty decrepit New York loft-studios they had at the time (and, for that matter, all the footage of these now-much-older artists giving interviews in their nicer but still kinda grotty current studios). I was also immediately impressed with the film due to its opening credits theme being "We Do Wie Du" by The Monks. There were several other songs by The Monks interspersed throughout the film, as well as songs by The Pretty Things, Can, The Velvet Underground, John Cale, and Eric Dolphy. In fact, I really enjoyed a song that I didn't recognize in the film, figured out from the end credits that it was John Cale's "Gideon's Bible", from his album "Vintage Violence", and have now downloaded and am listening to that album (which rules). Anyway, as to the movie, Henry Geldzahler had a really interesting life, being both a curator and a peer to the contemporary artists working in that scene at the time. He participated in the events and "happenings" that people were giving at the time, hung out with Andy Warhol at the Factory, and would have dinner and pose for pictures by some of the foremost artists of the time. Since I know so little about visual arts of any era, I didn't have the problem that I often have with documentaries about music or writers, where I know everything the movie tells me before it gets around to telling me, and therefore I learned a lot from it. Audio from a lecture Geldzahler gave at some point before his death was used as narration for most of the film, telling the story of his life from his point of view and giving it a narrative structure, which then alternated with interviews, both period and current, with artists and other important figures in the story. They had interesting stuff to say, Henry did too, and the narrative constructed was fascinating and entertaining. Really, my only complaint about this movie was that, at 80 minutes, I wish it had gone on longer. Excellent and highly recommended for anyone who enjoys post-1950 American art.