1/01/2009

Movie Diary: 10/5/08-1/1/09

10/5

I saw "Junebug" last night, which was a slow movie with loose narrative and big chunks with little or no dialogue. I've been watching a lot of American independent movies made in that style lately. It reminded me somewhat of David Gordon Green's work, although more like "All The Real Girls" than "George Washington", which I didn't like. It's about a cosmopolitan Chicago art museum curator who has recently married a guy she didn't know for very long, and the two of them going to visit his family down in rural Georgia for the first time. The family is really dysfunctional, so at the same time that Madeleine, the curator, is trying to get to know all of them and find her place in their world, they're all having little dramas with each other. Meanwhile, George, her husband, is getting pulled back into a world that he hasn't even visited in three years, with mixed results. He seems to be doing fine with it on the surface, but there are definitely moments that show the strain he's going through. The film tells this story, as well as the story of how George's parents are relating to each other, and that of George's brother Johnny and his wife Ashley dealing with Ashley's current pregnancy, mostly through fly-on-the-wall scenes of interaction between characters who either don't know each other well enough to talk honestly or who are just too dysfunctional to do so. It's a series of long silences and awkward conversations, and it culminates in a series of events that all happen as Ashley goes into labor with her baby. I wouldn't say that this movie is a complete downer, but it's at least somewhat depressing for a great deal of its length, and the ending is less an upbeat one than one in which it is obvious that all of the characters are just doing their best to salvage things. They're just trying to keep things from being worse than they already are. I found myself relating just as much to George as to Madeleine, who provides the point of view for most of the film. George's situation is much more like my own in relation to my family, and I could tell that, while he was in their company, he was for the most part playing a role that didn't have that much to do with who he really is, a role he presumably left home because he was tired of playing. It was a well-done movie, but it ended up depressing the holy hell out of me. I think that was the main intention, but I kind of wish I hadn't watched this movie when I did. I wasn't in the sort of mood that would allow me to avoid being depressed by it.

10/9

So hey, this afternoon I beat my roommate home and decided to celebrate by watching a movie since for once he wasn't already ensconced in front of the TV. I watched "Off The Grid: Life On The Mesa", a documentary released last year about people who live in a very sparsely populated area of the New Mexico desert. It's basically frontier-land, and a lot of the people in the movie were either diehard hippies, dead-end runaways, or veterans with PTSD. It actually reminded me of a lot of the more fringe-type people I met in the late 90s and early 2000s when I was somewhat involved in radical activism. I always kept myself to the fringes of that scene, and the sorts of wingnuts, crusties, and old hippies that I met in that scene whom I also see represented in this movie were a lot of the reason why I was never all that comfortable within the activist scene. I respect people like that, because I know they're really serious about their way of life and the values they hold dear, but I'm also a bit scared of them. There's a lot of drug use in scenes like that, and a lot of guns and violence, and a lot of mental illness, and all of these things were shown in the movie. On the other hand, a lot of the reasons why I do respect people like this were shown as well--the sense of independence and self-reliance, the belief in self-policing of one's community and the courage to put that belief into practice (though, I must note: this is the sort of thing that can only work in a sparsely populated rural community. The idea of self-policing and community exile as punishment doesn't work in highly populated urban areas), and the use of the barter system to the near complete exclusion of money, to name a few. I was reminded of people I used to know or still do know by some of the people in the movie, and I really liked some of them. However, some of them made me really sad, and I know that I could never be part of a community like that. I couldn't live the sort of dirty, hardscrabble life these people lead. And I couldn't deal with the dangers of it, as shown in the movie through stories about police harrassment of one mesa resident and robbery by young crusties of several others. The crusties were interesting because they, most of all, reminded me of the downside of that entire culture. The only one of them who would agree to be filmed was, in the end, turned off by the behavior of the larger group, and left the mesa to return to society not long after he appeared. By the way, he had a huge Assuck backpatch on his jacket--that made me happy.

Anyway, it was a good movie. I enjoyed learning about the society it documented. I would never ever ever want to be part of it, though.

10/11

Tonight I saw "Taxi To The Dark Side". I'd been meaning to see it based on some discussion I've heard about it, here and elsewhere, and, well, Brandon had DVR-ed it recently, so we watched it together.

God damn, that was an intense movie. For those who don't know, it takes the story of an 18 year old Afghani taxi driver who died after 5 days of torture in Bagram prison as a jumping off point to explore the US government's history of torture post-911. There's a lot of talk about Gitmo and Abu Ghraib, John Yoo and Donald Rumsfeld and Lynndie England, and even though there was a lot I already knew, there was much more that I didn't. What I learned: the US government program of torture is more widespread than I thought, has harmed more people than I thought, and has its roots much deeper and higher-up than I thought. I've thought for a long time that Dick Cheney deserved to be tried as a war criminal, but this movie made me that much more secure in my conviction that such a process is to be desired. Rumsfeld, as well. Worst of all is the shame I felt that all of this was done in my name. The damage that's been done to the reputation of the United States of America by this policy is incalculable at this point, and probably won't truly be known for decades, but I now see just how much worse our policies of torture has made our position in the Arab world. It's fucking awful.

I was, at least, gratified to see some scathing indictments of the premise of the TV show "24". It's sad and appalling to think of just how much this TV show has done to help ordinary Americans come to support torture as perpetrated by their government.

You know, I sure hope that the next president has enough courage in his convictions to close Guantanamo Bay and end the use of the "enemy combatant" designation. I think Obama just might. McCain, though... I doubt it. The way his own position changed over the course of the time period documented in the film was depressing enough to see without wondering just how much worse it can get.

10/17

So last night I saw "Short Order", which was recommended to me by Jojo, who tends to like the same sort of loosely-narrated indie films I like. I was expecting something very different from what I got, though. She was talking about the main character struggling with the push and pull between her desire to succeed as a chef and her fear that she wouldn't be able to live up to her potential, and how most of the movie is just characters having conversations about things like food and sex, and I guess I expected a pretty standard modern indie film. Instead, I got a movie that immediately reminded me of a 60s studio-system musical. The setting was one of those unrealistic, almost fairytale-looking mid-century New York city blocks that you can just tell was constructed on a Hollywood backlot somewhere (except that this movie is apparently Irish in origin, but whatever, close enough). Furthering this 60s studio-system musical feel was the opening scene, a song-and-dance number in which the main character, a gorgeous young French woman, sang a jazzed-up version of "You Are My Sunshine" and danced in puddles backed by extras with umbrellas. This was the only full-scale musical number in the whole movie, but I think it was kind of important to establish a mood. The unrealistic elements of the ensuing movie were easy to forgive once I'd been set up to see it through that lens.

"Short Order" is definitely a flawed film, and although I enjoyed parts of it very much, other parts were hard to sit through. For me, these parts were mostly the ones that concerned the chef at the restaurant next door to main character Fifi's short-order lunch counter. That chef, Paulo, played by Boris The Blade from "Snatch" (the second I saw him, I thought, "Heavy is good. Heavy is reliable. If it doesn't work, you can always hit him with it."), has become obsessed with punishing dine-and-dashers, and has begun preparing and serving a secret dish made from the fingers he's chopped off the hands of those who've tried to run out on their bills at his restaurant. Said secret dish, secret in both the sense of no one knowing what it's made from and in the sense that it is not on his menu and a diner has to know about it in advance in order to be able to ask for it, has been rumored all around town, and is starting to attract debatably unwanted attention. It's a decent setup, but I felt like the way it was handled was all wrong, and I particularly did not like the direction this plot took during the last third of the movie.

Fortunately, it's far from the only thing going on. We see conversations between Fifi and her delivery driver, Catherine (played by Cosma Shiva Hagen, daughter of New Wave chanteuse Nina Hagen), about achieving potential and being afraid of living life to the fullest, which were my favorite parts of the movie, as well as conversations between each of them and various other characters around the town. Catherine stops in a bar after a food delivery at one point and hears a strange story from none other than Vanessa Redgrave, Fifi gets into fights with owners of other restaurants, including a maitre d' who wants to hire her and a chef who thinks she's a failure, and these scenes are intercut with pieces of interviews conducted by an unrelated documentary filmmaker, talking to local restauranteurs (a hot dog stand guy, a pizza maker) about connections between food and sex. The pizza maker is played in an uncredited cameo by Jon Polito, which made me happy because I love that guy. Basically, none of the parts of the movie except the one with Boris The Blade in it have any real plot to them, and I liked all of those parts the best, so maybe it was the interjection of a more standard thriller-type plot into the film when it really didn't seem like it belonged that made that section work the least for me out of all the different things going on in the movie. No conclusions were really drawn about Fifi's struggle to figure out where to go with her potential and ambitions, or Catherine's ennui and desire for a more exciting life, but maybe that's for the best. Big dramatic answers to those sorts of questions that show up in films are generally not applicable to the great majority of people, so maybe it's better that writer/director Anthony Byrne didn't try to insert his own personal answers into the movie at all. The movie ends with Fifi and Catherine cooking together at the short-order counter, dancing to a cheesy 70s AM hit playing on their tiny transistor radio, and their momentary happiness is enough to give the entire film an uplifting feeling at the end. Despite the fact that this movie is far from perfect, I probably enjoyed it more than some other better-made films I've seen recently. It makes up for its imperfections with sincerity and a humble willingness not to reach for any big statements. It's not for everyone, I'm sure, but it worked for me.

10/18

So I just saw "Michael Clayton". Holy fuck. That's one of the best movies I've seen in a long time. This is the second thing I have done since it ended, and the first one was to log into Netflix and look up what else Tony Gilroy has done. I've seen a couple of the movies he's written--"Dolores Claiborne" and "Proof Of Life"--and not been all that impressed, but I enjoyed "Michael Clayton" so much that I feel like his prior work might deserve a second look. On the other hand, this is his first directorial effort, so it might be that he just hasn't gotten to this point before now. Either way, "Michael Clayton" is an incredible film and the idea that it's a directorial debut is kind of mindboggling.

The thing I found most interesting about this film is that I felt like we the audience were being injected sideways into the middle of a legal thriller already in progress. I feel like if anyone else had made this movie, Michael Clayton himself would have been a secondary or even a tertiary character. After all, he's not on the scene as the wheels of the plot begin turning, he's merely drawn in due to his closeness to some of the main characters in said legal-thriller plot. What's brilliant about this movie is that the plot that it ends up having is not that legal thriller plot, is instead a story about a man being forced to re-examine everything he's done with his life up to the current point, but at the same time is full of action and espionage, mysteries being brought to light and strange plot twists, devious plots and double crosses galore. But what you're left with, through most of the film, is a study of Michael Clayton. He's a fixer for a powerful law firm, one of those guys who stays behind the scenes to make sure the important shit gets done, who sacrifices limelight and career progression for a position in the firm that is essential to its workings even if some of the partners don't want to admit it. He's dealing with the fallout of his brother falling off the wagon while the two of them were attempting to start a restaurant together, and his having to sell the business and somehow pay off loan sharks. He's trying to manage his time well enough to see his son and his extended family while still needing to constantly be on call to his firm. And he's trying to stabilize one of his bosses at the firm, a man he feels very close to, who has just gone off his meds and had a bipolar episode in mid-deposition that may have jeopardized a 6-year case that represents millions of dollars in income to the firm as a whole.

What happens from there is told in reverse: the first thing we see is the dramatic climax, the point where all of these threads come together and force Clayton to take decisive action. At the time, it's just an insane occurrence that we don't understand. But from there, the movie doubles back to earlier in the week, and slowly, over the course of 3/4 of its run time, it reassembles all of the plot threads necessary to put the thing we saw first in context. All of this makes Clayton's final action, the last 25 or so minutes of the film, much more powerful than it otherwise would have been, had we been drawn into it slowly and in linear fashion. The climax, and knowing that its coming, makes us see everything that happened before it in a different light. And it's just amazing.

There are a lot of other things in this movie that should be complimented besides the powerful composition of the story. The cast is all-star: George Clooney in the title role, backed by Tom Wilkinson (in the best performance I've ever seen from him), Tilda Swinton (who makes the most of her 20 or so mins of screen time), and of course the late great Sydney Pollack, among others. The direction is understated and serves the movie very well. But what I keep coming back to is the incredible script this movie has. It's crazy--I never wanted to see any of the Bourne films before now, no matter how great people often swore to me that they were. But now that I know that writing that trilogy is what Tony Gilroy was doing before this movie, I feel like I should not only see them but make a point of seeing them as soon as possible. That's how fucking good this movie was. If you haven't seen it, you owe it to yourself to check it out.

10/25

Briefly: I saw "Born Into Brothels" the other night. I don't have a ton to say about it, but I did think it was an amazing and powerful movie. I expected it to be a more straightforwardly informational documentary about the fact that kids are born to prostitutes in the red light districts of Calcutta and grow up there, etc. I didn't expect it to be a movie that documented the lives of a bunch of specific pre-teen children who were currently living in said red light districts. But that's what it was. The kids had in common the fact that they were all learning photography from co-director Zana Briski, who made it her mission to try to get all of them out of the red light district and into schools. The first part of the movie introduced you to each of the kids, gave you insight into their daily lives, and taught you a bit about each of their personalities as well as where their strengths and talents lay. Then, after a half-hour or so that totally made me fall in love with all of these kids, the rest of the movie made clear just how many cards were stacked against these kids ever having a better life. Zana Briski went through struggles that I couldn't imagine enduring in order to help them get into various schools around Calcutta, and she didn't even have success with all of them, for a variety of reasons, and it just kicked my ass. By the end of the movie, I was having to wipe away tears every few minutes. It is so sad and appalling to me that this sort of situation is allowed to exist anywhere in this world. And I'm sure that for every kid I saw in this movie there are 100 more who are every bit as disadvantaged and every bit as deserving of a better life. When I think about it, it's incredibly daunting. It's hard to see how anyone could ever do anything to make this even the slightest bit better. For that reason, I have to give a lot of credit to the filmmakers, for not only doing such hard work to get as many of these kids as they could out of their situations but also making the movie and doing what they could to raise awareness in the rest of the world of this situation. I don't think I would have the strength to do that myself.

11/1

Last night, I went to the movie theater to catch "Zack and Miri Make A Porno" on opening night. I know Kevin Smith's work has been pretty disappointing as of late, but I thought he had a real chance to get something good out of this movie, considering that it was him staying in comic territory but moving away from the long played out "Clerks" setting. I was not disappointed. It's definitely a return to form--his best work since "Chasing Amy". Of course, I say that having not seen "Jersey Girl", but considering how widely regarded as a turkey that movie is, I figure I'm on safe ground making such an assertion. Anyway, Seth Rogen and Elizabeth Banks are excellent in the movie, but I wouldn't have expected any less from them. The secondary characters really made the movie, though. I felt that Jeff Anderson descended into self-parody in "Clerks 2", which was at least as much the fault of Kevin Smith's scripting as his own acting, but either way, he really redeems himself in this movie, getting back to the loveable-douchebag balancing act that he nailed in "Clerks". Jason Mewes also did a great job in this movie as a clueless dunce with porno skills--it's the first time I've seen him in a movie where he wasn't basically playing himself, and although the role wasn't that challenging, he did a good job with it. The thing that pleased me most about this movie, though, was that the humor managed to be broadly hilarious without being juvenile the way it was in "Clerks 2". That was my biggest problem with that movie--I felt like Kevin Smith spent most of it going for the easiest jokes he could possibly make, picking low-hanging fruit when I know he has more talent than that. He just wasn't really trying, I didn't think. "Zack And Miri Make A Porno" could have been shallow and stupid and appealed mainly to the Beavis and Butthead demographic in the same way "Clerks 2" did, but it didn't. The scene at their ten-year high school reunion where a drunken Miri tries to get a former high school crush to sleep with her while he's in town is note-perfect and not something I'd ever expect to see in a Kevin Smith movie. And it works just as well as a blatantly scatological bit that happens during one of the later scenes that I don't want to spoil for you.

Really, there are some of you out there who aren't ever going to like a Kevin Smith movie. You know who you are, and "Zack And Miri" isn't going to change your mind. But if you're more like me, and loved his early movies, but feel he kind of lost his touch somewhere along the way, this movie will totally renew your faith in his work.

11/12

So, tonight I decided to conduct an experiment. I wanted to see if Kevin Smith's "Jersey Girl" was as bad as everyone always tells me it is. Short answer: not really, but sorta. Longer answer: The problem is not that this movie is BAD. This movie is, to a great extent, mediocre. In fact, it's the sort of middlebrow treacle that I sometimes end up catching sections of on cable of some weekend evening and end up getting choked up at the sentimental moments and then feeling really ashamed of myself over. This would be one of those things that I thought, "Eh, whatever, I guess it's OK but it's not really my type of thing" about if it weren't for the fact that it was written and directed by Kevin Smith. Worse, there are moments when Smith's actual style shows through. For example, any scene that features George Carlin as Ben Affleck's father is almost guaranteed to be good. The guy is just too funny to be defeated for long, even by a treacly script. Plus, his lines are always able to puncture that cheesy bubble that much of this movie lives in. Affleck himself is not someone I've ever considered to be an Oscar-nominee actor, but I will at least give him that he's always a solid performer. That said, he's only ever able to be as good as the movie he's appearing in, and the material he has to work with here is largely subpar.

Amazingly enough, the only sections of the movie that really felt like an actual Kevin Smith movie had broken out in the middle of generic rom-com #19467895 were the ones with Liv Tyler in them. I tend to think of her as kind of a wooden actor, someone who never has any personality in her films and generally just stands there, looks cute, and allows the audience to project onto her whatever they want to see out of her character. Her role in "Jersey Girl" is a huge departure from that; she's actually the most Kevin Smith like of the characters in this movie. When she first showed up, the movie had been going for 40 minutes and I'd forgotten that Liv Tyler was even in it; at first I thought she was Sarah Silverman, of all people. And while she's not as obnoxious as Silverman would have been in the role, it seems more like something she'd have been cast for than something Liv Tyler would ever do. You'd think she'd make a total hash job of it, but she's so good in the role, it actually makes me wonder if the reason she hasn't done more substantive movie work before is because she's been typecast as wooden rather than that she has no acting skills.

The 10 minutes after Liv Tyler shows up as the video store clerk who is way too inquisitive about Ben Affleck's porn rental habits feel like you, the viewer, have finally been rescued from mediocre rom-com cheese hell and dropped back into a Kevin Smith movie, and it's as refreshing as a cool drink on a hot day. Unfortunately, we soon dip back into the lake of cheese that is a great deal of this movie, and the moments that surface again are intermittent. The ending is so cheesy it makes a great deal of the rest of the movie look good by comparison, and the plotline is, for the most part, so hackneyed and predictable that you never once wonder what will happen next. OK, there was one bit at the end, a celebrity cameo if you will, that surprised me. And was surprisingly funny, for that matter. But damn... for the most part, this is about 20 minutes of great material surrounded by an hour and a half of bullshit. I feel like a lot of solid performances were sacrificed to incurably weak material in this movie (forgot to mention this--I love the girl who played Affleck's kid. She's adorable), and it's kind of a tragedy.

In the end, though, I think Kevin Smith needed to make "Jersey Girl", because he had lesson to learn. After he was done with all of his Jay And Silent Bob stuff, he wanted to grow up and make more adult movies, and he ended up doing so by writing and directing a film that is just like a million other bullshit films that Hollywood churns out every year. It's as if he completely lost track of what makes him talented, and thought that he could become Rob Reiner or something at the drop of a hat. He forgot that it isn't what he does, he forgot that there's no reason anyone should want to be Rob Reiner anyway, and he went for the brass ring. Failure led him to retreat from his ambitions and make the Kevin Smithiest movie possible, "Clerks 2", which was better, but involved him trying to repeat achievements from earlier in his career when he was beyond that point, and therefore still only worked intermittently. I mean, Rosario Dawson is great in that movie, but the Jay and Silent Bob scenes are pointless and the bit with the goat or donkey or whatever it is is pretty much the worst thing I've seen in any of his movies (yes, worse than ANYTHING in "Jersey Girl"). This was his second lesson--you can make going-through-the-motions crap and please the stupider elements of your audience forever, but if you don't grow as an artist, your shit will eventually suck. Having now seen both "Jersey Girl" and "Zack and Miri Make A Porno", I feel like I can really see how he got from one to the other, and I feel like he's regained his balance as a writer/director and also learned how to move forward. Hopefully this means he'll continue making good movies for the foreseeable future and I won't have watched "Jersey Girl" in vain. Guess we won't know until it happens, though.

11/14

Last night I saw "Thumbsucker". This was an interesting indie film based on the premise of an awkward high school boy that still sucks his thumb attempting to make his way through the world. But there was so much more going on than that, and in fact, I wouldn't really want to get into the plot at any length whatsoever, for fear of spoiling things that happen after 20 or 35 or whatever minutes. I will say that the film has a great cast--Vincent D'Onofrio, Tilda Swinton, Vince Vaughan, even Keanu Reeves is good in it--which, yes, was a huge surprise to me. Lou Pucci as the kid, Justin, made the movie the excellent thing it was, though. His performance was outstanding and I felt like his acting commented the scriptwriting perfectly. Really, "Thumbsucker" is the standard thing you expect from small, low-budget, character driven indie movies these days, but writer/director Mike Mills handled things in a steadier fashion than I'm used to. It wasn't quite up to the standard set by Nicole Holofcener, whose work is my gold standard where these sorts of indie movies is concerned, but it was close. I'd definitely recommend it to anyone who likes stuff like "Friends With Money" or maybe "I Heart Huckabees".

11/22

Last night, I saw "I Am A Sex Addict", a movie by a guy named Caveh Zahedi that purports to tell the story of his life of sex addiction. I couldn't, of course, tell you how true it actually is, but it was certainly entertaining. His story revolves around his own preconceptions about sexuality, relationships, and morality as it factors into both. I could particularly relate to his explanation of how, in his early years especially, he saw virtue and self-denial as roughly equal. I could also relate to his tendency to engage in self-destructive behavior when his relationships went badly, though the last thing I'd ever do is see a prostitute, which was what he did. But yeah, this was a pretty entertaining movie. It wasn't quite like a Spalding Gray monologue--there was more variety to the movie than that--but in a lot of ways it was set up similarly, mainly in the way that Zahedi narrated the entire film as one long story told to the viewer. Sometimes he switches back and forth from interacting in a scene with other characters to narrating the scene to the viewer, which seems like it might be awkward but never quite gets that way in the film. It was a pretty funny movie, on the whole, and I felt that its no frills low budget appearance helped rather than hurt it. In fact, to that point, there were a few moments in the movie where Zahedi would step back from the story he was telling to explain some difficulty or another that he had in making the film, even one where he had to narrate a scene that was supposed to be acted out between he and one of the female actors. Apparently, the woman had at the last second refused to re-enact a blowjob on camera, so Zahedi had to explain what the scene should have looked like and then read the narration while standing by himself. Again, could have been weird, but instead seemed to add to the movie's charm. So yeah, I wouldn't say this is great by any means, but it was fun. I'd definitely check out other films by the guy.

11/29

So hey, I saw "Forgetting Sarah Marshall" last night. Had been meaning to see it, and then Sarah's recent mention of it reminded me, and I bumped it to the head of my Netflix queue. It was the perfect movie for the mood I was in last night. I needed something hilarious and heartwarming in a non-treacly way, and it fit the bill perfectly. God damn, was it funny, too. Probably made me laugh as much as "Superbad" did, though for completely different reasons. I mean, there were dick jokes in "Forgetting Sarah Marshall", but there were also some pretty amazingly done hilariously awkward moments (and I usually hate comedy like that), as well as some really good humor based on the way people interact and stuff, which I thought was effectively subtle and just generally note-perfect. One moment in particular, when Jason Segel and Mila Kunis reacted to something that had just happened in front of them by looking at each other and cracking up, just seemed so lifelike and real, which so few things in broad comedies ever are. And it did so without sacrificing the actual humor of the moment, either. Oh, and Jason Segel's songs that were in the movie were pretty great too. I won't explain further so I don't ruin them for anyone who hasn't seen the movie, but seriously, it's an unexpected treat. I expected Segel, Kunis, and the always-awesome Kristen Bell to do great jobs in this movie, and they definitely did, but all of the supporting roles were top notch as well, both from actors I've seen plenty of times (Paul Rudd, Jonah Hill, Bill Hader) and actors I was previously unfamiliar with (Russell Brand, Davon McDonald, Jack McBrayer [whom I think I recognize from "30 Rock." Is that right?]). Really, not much about this movie could have been done better. Even the DVD extras were fucking hilarious.

Overall verdict: major thumbs up. I realize that a lot of people are getting sick of Judd Apatow and his band of merry men (for the record, he only produced this movie--Segel wrote it and Nicholas Stoller directed it), but as long as they keep making movies that are this entertaining, I see nothing to complain about. With four or so a year, I don't know how long they can maintain this quality level, but I'm on board for however long that turns out to be.

12/2

Oh, and let me tell you guys about the movie I saw last night. "Pickup On South Street", a noir film from 1953, starring Richard Widmark, written and directed by Samuel Fuller. I've been hearing about this movie as the cream of the American noir crop for a long time, and of course I've been curious about Fuller for a while as well (this was the first of his movies that I've seen). This film did not disappoint. We all know Richard Widmark is the man, and he certainly was in this movie. Jean Peters was also really good in the female lead--I was particularly into her voice, which had a bit of that brassy New York working-class dame sound without sounding overdone or like a put-on. She and Widmark, as well as Thelma Ritter, who played an older lady who makes her living selling underworld secrets to the cops, all were very convincing as working-class petty criminal types. I really liked Fuller's script for the movie, too--it had a lot of layers to it, with cops trying to catch a pickpocket who had ripped off someone taking secrets to the Commies. The FBI were watching the Commie carrier, so now they were after the pickpocket, as were the Commies, and Moe the stoolie (Ritter) and Skip the pickpocket (Widmark) were caught up in the middle of the whole thing. So was Candy (Peters), whose purse Skip had picked to get the stuff in the first place. As you can imagine, there were twists, turns, and double-crosses going on all over the place throughout the movie, but it was all remarkably clear and easy to understand, and there was never any point where anything too implausible happened.

SPOILERS BEGIN HERE. DON'T READ PAST THIS POINT IF YOU DON'T WANNA BE SPOILED FOR AT LEAST SOME PLOT POINTS IN THIS MOVIE.


Well, I guess I'd have to say Candy falling for Skip 20 minutes into the movie and being instantly devoted to him was a bit implausible, but from Skip's end of things it often appeared that he was more interested in her as insurance to keep him safe than because he actually dug her. Skip's feelings for Candy were never really clarified until the very end of the movie, and that worked for me--it was just Candy's instant devotion to Skip that was a bit weird. But a bit of an old-movie cliche, so I suppose I shouldn't be that surprised.

There was a lot of brutality in this movie, which fit with what I'd heard about Fuller. I'd heard that he depicted violence in a straightforward, realistic manner that was a lot different from the standard of the time, and I found this to be true. There was one point where Joey, the Commie agent and former boyfriend of Candy, tried to get Candy to rat Skip out, and when she wouldn't do it, he proceeded to smack her all around the room, and they smashed up a bunch of furniture. At the end of the scene, right as Candy was about to run out of the place, Joey shot her and she collapsed onto a table next to her and just destroyed it. That's the kind of thing you never really see in movies before 20 or 30 years ago that stood out to me in this 55 year old movie; it's much more realistic than the sort of violence I usually expect in these old movies. Skip and Joey brawling in a subway station at the climactic point of the movie was the same way. Very well done, very brutal. I was into it.

My favorite part about this movie was how it ended. Noir films don't generally have happy endings, and I wouldn't say that this movie has too much of one, but things at least turn out OK for our protagonists. What I found funny, though, was the way the ending of the movie brought home the fact that the petty criminals were our protagonists. Skip and Candy leave the police station happy and free, with Captain Tiger ranting and raving in their wake about how he's eventually gonna get Skip and put him away forever. He looks like a buffoon, and the audience sympathy is decidedly against him. Compare this to another classic noir film, John Huston's "Asphalt Jungle", which ends with doom for all of the criminal characters and a final scene that's basically a three-minute sermon about the importance of cops in all of our lives. It kind of turns that entire paradigm on its head, which is pretty subversive for a Hollywood movie made by a major studio in the mid-50s. That's pretty damn cool, if you ask me. I'm very interested in seeing more of Samuel Fuller's work in the future.

12/6

Saw "Margot At The Wedding" last night. I'm starting to sense a theme to Noah Baumbach's work--emotional dysfunction amongst upper-class New Englanders, often within families. That's what this movie was about. Both Nicole Kidman and Jennifer Jason Leigh did a great job acting as two sisters who are both completely emotionally fucked in their own special ways, but my sympathies were decidedly in favor of Jennifer Jason Leigh's character, Pauline. At one point, when she told Margot (Kidman) that she was a monster, I cheered. This movie was almost uncomfortable for me to watch because of how much Margot reminded me of my own mother, in all of the worst ways. Manipulative, emotionally unavailable, casually mean without even noticing the consequences... it's all there. I felt so much sympathy for her sister and her son. I liked Jack Black's character a lot, too, and for those who've never seen Black in anything other than broad comedic roles, this movie proves that the guy has range. Oh, don't get me wrong, he's still funny, it's just not in a way that's obviously intended to be funny. He's acting seriously as a character who is somewhat of a buffoon, and you can always tell that, when actions the character takes are funny, they're funny by accident. Black never hams it up or overacts. If he did, he'd kind of ruin the tone of the movie. I was pretty impressed with him, on the whole.

I still think Noah Baumbach is a good writer and director, and I would definitely tell anyone who asked that this was a good movie. But I never want to see it again. Now I know how my friend Eric felt when he saw "The Squid and the Whale" and said afterwards that the movie had made him want to kill himself. It hit too close to home for him. I guess this is my own Baumbach movie that hits too close to home.

12/8

Saturday night I stayed up late and watched "River's Edge". It wasn't over until after 3 AM, and by that point I was getting kind of tired, but I didn't have any trouble staying focused on the movie. I had heard some things about it before, and knew it was a movie from the mid-80s with Crispin Glover as the leader of a gang of dead end kids in a crappy town who like to drink down by the river. I was expecting it to be one of those rebel-action type 80s movies, like maybe "Pump Up The Volume". Instead, I got something quite different. It's more like an existential horror movie or something. The first thing we see in the movie is one of the kids sitting by the river, staring down at the dead body of a naked girl. It's a really creepy scene, made even creepier by the ensuing action: the kid, John, goes to school like nothing has happened, and when his friends start to ask where his girlfriend is after a day or two of not seeing her around, he says, "I killed her." No one believes him until he takes two of his friends to see the body, those friends being Lane (Glover) and Matt (Keanu Reeves, who, by the way, is quite good in this movie, primarily because the movie calls for him to be quiet, sullen, and generally unemotional). Lane is the charismatic unofficial leader of the crew, and he reacts to the situation with great melodrama, determining that he and all of his friends must do whatever it takes to protect John from being caught. Matt seems calm at first, but as the movie proceeds, we start to see that he's more shellshocked than anything. His appalling home life has not prepared him to know what to do in the face of this kind of situation.

I've read simplified descriptions of this movie that say the kids react to the murder with apathy, but that seems mostly untrue to me. All of the kids who learn about the murder react in their own way. Clarissa (Ione Skye--there are lots of 80s-movie superstars in this movie) is upset both by the murder and Lane's decision to protect John. Some of the other kids do seem to see it as something that almost isn't real, but these are more minor characters. It's those who have a strong reaction to the situation--Lane, Matt, Clarissa, Matt's little brother Tim--who are the most important characters in the movie.

As the plot progresses, it becomes a bit less plausible, but the movie creates a strong enough atmosphere that the relative plausibility of it all doesn't intrude into one's ability to enjoy it. The real horror of it all, to me, is not so much the murder at the beginning of the movie but the obvious lack of a moral center in the lives of all the kids, which make them so completely unprepared to handle the situation that's been thrust upon them. John's character is pretty scary in his own right; he is the sort of quiet, unemotional person that blends into the background but seems like he might snap at any point. The fact that the movie begins with him doing so is unsurprising once you get to know his character better. There's also a subplot involving Tim, Matt's 12 year old brother, that's pretty frightening. Worst of all is just how pointless it all seems at the end. Even the characters who don't seem permanently scarred by this episode--and honestly, most of them seem like they were already doomed before it happened--appear to just be drifting back into the normal course of their dead-end lives. There's nothing that's the slightest bit uplifting about this movie, and its bleak directorial style fits well with that fact, although I honestly think that the somewhat sappy orchestral score could have been done away with in favor of a few more Slayer and Metallica tracks and a bit less incidental music in general. The attempts to create a mood with score generally fell flat, and I feel like the score only ended up in the movie because of the time the movie was made and the conventions that were prevalent in the film industry at that point. That said, I think the fact that my biggest complaint with a movie is that its score wasn't that great is a compliment, overall.

12/29

Last night I watched "Kiss Of Death". I found it really interesting, primarily because of the contrasting ways the actors playing the hero and villain of the film portrayed their characters. Victor Mature, as our hero (anti-hero, really--he's a small-time thief who becomes a stoolie in order to get out of jail), is stoic, his emotional responses understated and his dialogue generally delivered quietly and tersely. Richard Widmark, as the villain, chews scenery with gusto, chuckling constantly and delivering his lines in a near-impenetrable tough-guy working-class accent. It's easy for Widmark to steal the scenes he's in from Mature, but on the whole I think the contrast between the characters works well. There are some really dark, creepy scenes in the film, but enough emotionally-oriented non-action scenes to make you care about the characters of Mature and his family. There's a good balance struck between these two moods, in fact, and although in the early parts of the movie I was kind of surprised at how little action there was (that changed towards the end), my attention never wandered. As I mentioned, Mature's character is kind of an anti-hero, and he's still the closest we get to a good character that we can root for. Well, maybe other than Nettie, the girl who is in love with him, who acts in her scenes as if she's a wholesome apple-cheeked girl, but hints through her narration (side note: though the film doesn't have a ton of narration, it is done by the female lead, which was a pleasant surprise, to see a female character in a movie like this given even a relatively small amount of emotional complexity) and her conversations with Mature that she's a lot younger than he is, and has had a crush on him since she was, assumedly, a teenager. Rather than being bothered by his criminal past (and, really, present) as his first wife was, she seems to find it somewhat alluring. So, even she isn't a perfect straight arrow. Neither is the Assistant DA, who at times, despite his protestations to the contrary, seems to hang Mature out to dry rather than offer him the full protection of the law. Widmark's obviously psychopathic character is a great update on James Cagney's Tom Powers character, from The Public Enemy. He has that same animalistic, unrestrained quality that made Cagney's performance in that movie so compelling. I was surprised by the way the film ended (no spoilers), but it didn't hurt my enjoyment of it as a whole, and I would definitely rate "Kiss Of Death" as one of the better noirs I've seen lately. I mean, it's not "Blast Of Silence", but really, what is?

1/1

Tonight I watched "In Bruges", because Showtime OnDemand had it available until tomorrow, and I've been kinda wanting to see it. I actually tried to watch "Watching The Detectives", a comedy about Cilian Murphy running a small-time video store and having an encounter with a "femme fatale", played by Lucy Liu. Within 10 mins, I was like, "Nah brah." For those who've considered it, let me warn you--that movie is wack.

But so: "In Bruges". Really liked this movie. Premise: Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell are hit men who botched a job and have been sent to a town in Belgium called Bruges for cooling off time. The town is a preserved medieval town in which 90% of the buildings are 800 or more years old, and Ken (Gleeson) thinks it's cool, but Ray (Farrell) finds the whole thing lame. They're waiting for their boss, Harry, to call and tell them what to do next, and in the meantime Ray meets a Belgian girl and asks her on a date. When Harry calls, all kinds of shit breaks loose, but I don't want to get into spoilers. I will say that this movie is blackly humorous at points and quite dark and violent at others. I liked its sensibility, though--it definitely did not feel American. It was more related to a movie like "Snatch" than a movie like "The Departed." That said, it wasn't much like "Snatch", either--the comedy was kept to a minimum. There were some intricate and seemingly unrelated plot threads that all tied together in the end, though. Man, I fuckin' LOVED the ending. It was dark, it was unpredictable, and it left the ultimate resolution of the plot open to interpretation in an absolutely masterful manner. And by the way, I have to mention Jordan Prentice, who had a relatively minor but very entertaining role in the film. He stole every scene he was in. I actually thought he was Peter Dinklage at first, by the way. Looks a lot like him (not just cuz he's short, either). But yeah, he was hilarious.

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