A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

(500) Days of Summer

Oh. My. Ghod! Movie number 500 tonight!

July 13, 2011

(500) Days of Summer

Do you know what I enjoy? I enjoy quirky romantic dramedies. I enjoy non-linear storytelling. I enjoy Joseph Gordon-Lovett and Zooey Deschanel. In short – I enjoy movies like this.

Probably what I liked most about this movie was that it did such a great job defying my expectations. There are certain things that one assumes will be true in a romantic comedy about a boy and girl getting together, and even though the opening narration for this movie states outright that this is not a love story I found myself still trying to figure out how the inevitable happy ending was going to come about. I liked that this movie had the strength to tell what feels both like an honest story about what happens when a relationship doesn’t work and a tale of romantic possibilities.

This is the story of Tom, who still believes in true love and soul mates, and Summer, who is too young and beautiful to be as bitingly cynical as she actually is. It’s about how they briefly had a wonderful thing going and about what went wrong.

We know that something went wrong because the movie is sort of told from both ends. Early on in the movie we see things falling apart. We see the sad attempts to re-live happier moments before we get to see the happier moments that they’re references to. It lends a sense of pre-ordained tragedy to the movie that we know how things are going to end up – with Tom smashing plates in disconsolate misery. Even so, that’s around day 400, and we know there’s 500 days, so maybe in spite of the opening there is hope for this couple.

This movie is kind of about hope. The undying hope of that hopeless romantic Tom in the face of Summer’s assertion that love doesn’t actually exist. She repeatedly tells him she wants just to be friends, but confuses things by kissing him in the copy room and lying naked in his bed. She’s interested just in having a good time without assigning any labels to it. (Says Tom’s eccentric pal and co-worker McKenzie “Oh, my god, she’s a dude!”)

We mostly see events from Tom’s perspective, which means we get to meet his friends McKenzie (who hasn’t had a girlfriend in years) and Paul (who has had the same girl since grade school) and his awesome and wise far beyond her years sister Alison. They all try to help him as best they can, but he’s caught up in his own issues.

This was exactly the kind of quirky fun movie I thought it was going to be. I will admit that it went to some darker places than I had anticipated, but I appreciated that as well. It reminded me a lot of Amelie – a magical tale of romance, only with a more cynical core. I was tempted, once we were done watching it, to put in Closer as a follow-up, that also being a dramedy with a strange attitude towards the passing of time, but I knew that would just depress me. As it was this was the perfect 500th movie for our daily project.

July 13, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 465 – The Maltese Falcon

The Maltese Falcon – June 8th, 2011

It had been some time since I’d last seen this movie before tonight. I last saw it for a film class in high school, which was more years back than I usually think about. And to be honest, I don’t remember what I thought about it then or what my response to it was when we had to write about it. The class was a sort of quick overview of film and covered a strange array of titles (off the top of my head I can think of this, The Rules of the Game and The Deerhunter) over the course of a single semester and I know for certain that we watched this. But while I can vaguely remember what I said about The Rules of the Game and vividly remember what I said about The Deerhunter, what I mostly remember about watching this movie was that it wasn’t quite my genre but I liked it fine anyhow.

And it still isn’t really my genre. It’s not that I don’t like mysteries or noir or the sort of private eye that Sam Spade is. It’s just not my go-to genre. Which makes this movie difficult to review much in the same way No Country For Old Men was. Fortunately for this movie it’s got a few things that I find interesting and the main character is one of them. I actually rather like Sam Spade. He’s very much looking out for himself and I think I’ve made it clear I find that sort of character fascinating. But what makes him even more interesting to me is his secretary, Effie. I love Effie. I love her so much she’s going to get her own paragraph in a moment.

Now, Sam is a detective. And he’s got a partner, but of course he can’t keep that partner for long. Miles Archer gets bumped off just a few scenes in, setting everything else in motion when his widow sends the cops in Sam’s direction. He’s been approached by a woman with a patently false name to tail a man she claims is up to no good. Of course there’s more to the story and it turns out that the woman, Bridgid, along with two men (Kaspar Gutman and Joel Cairo), is after something important and valuable and there are people willing to kill to get their hands on it. The movie is full of double crosses and lies and bribes and deals. And through it all Spade has to figure out what the real story is, since none of the three main players is telling him, and also figure out what to do about it. After all, he doesn’t want his former partner’s murder pinned on him and there are two more deaths that he’d like to steer clear of. And Sam does so by paying close attention to everything around him and playing everyone off each other, including the cops.

But Sam also has an ace up his sleeve and that ace’s name is Effie. She’s his secretary, but while the role is a small one I can’t help but think about it in more detail. Effie’s always around the office and seems to be quite observant. She makes some interesting deductions of her own, suggesting them to Sam (who of course tells her why they’re wrong but also acknowledges that they were good ideas). She helps out with Bridgid, taking her home and trying to keep her safe. And when Sam comes into possession of the Maltese Falcon everyone’s so hot on obtaining, who does he trust to go and retrieve it and bring it to his meeting with Gutman, Cairo and Brigid? Effie. She’s depicted as a genuinely good person, smart and trustworthy. She’s not Sam’s type romantically, but that doesn’t matter one bit.

I do have some problems with Sam as a romantic lead. He’s not romantic. At least not for me. Maybe it’s that the ladies who fancy him so are attracted to the fact that he doesn’t seem to give a damn about them? I don’t know. I’ve never been much for that sort of romantic relationship in movies, but I suppose it’s a trope. Maybe it’s that some gals have a thing for Bogart. I don’t. Oh, he’s fun to watch and he does an excellent job in this role and there’s nothing terribly objectionable about him given the time period, he’s just not for me. Also, I would like to note that he doesn’t hit any women in this movie. He does slap Joel Cairo (played fantastically by Peter Lorre) and tell him “When you’re slapped you’ll take it and like it.” But I would just like to note that Woody Allen can kiss my ass for Play It Again, Sam and the constant references to punching women.

Regardless, I just don’t find this a very romantic movie. There’s a good attempt at it, with lots of dialogue between Brigid and Sam as well as some scenes that suggest that Sam’s been chased by the widow of his former partner. But they’re really not the highlight of the movie for me. The highlight is watching Sam work through the puzzle of it all and figure out a way to come out clean. This certainly isn’t my favorite movie in the world and it’s not flawless, but it is fun and it’s a solid mystery with some great performances, so I don’t argue with its classic status for one moment.

June 8, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

The Maltese Falcon

June 8, 2011

The Maltese Falcon

It’s shameful admission time. Tonight is the first time I’ve ever seen this movie. It’s one of those classic movies that everybody has heard of and if you’re a movie fan people kind of assume that you’ve seen this sometime. It’s got the WB stable of forties actors. Sydney Greenstreet, Humphrey Bogart and Peter Lorre would all be back in one year to make Casablanca, which I have seen many a time. My sister went through a Humphrey Bogart phase at one point in our youth and rented every one of his films, but I must have not been home when she watched this one.

Having finally seen this I have to admit that I was somewhat underwhelmed. It’s not a bad movie, and it has some fun performances, but it’s not really all that. Maybe the problem is that the movie is so commonly praised – my expectations were set too high.

I did really enjoy Bogart’s Sam Spade. It’s not as though Bogart is a stranger to the role of a hard-boiled detective, but this was not quite what I was expecting. I’m much more familiar with his Philip Marlowe in The Big Sleep, and I was pleasantly surprised that this character is so different and distinctive. It’s the sly kind of humor he brings to the part that I find so enjoyable. As a character Sam Spade is what Amanda would call Methosian – he’s a survivor and although the other characters in the movie seem to have a lot of trouble figuring out whose side he’s on it’s pretty clear from the very beginning that Sam Spade is on Sam Spade’s side.

He finds himself embroiled in a situation filled with danger, double crosses and avarice. When a woman hires Sam and his partner to tail a man that she claims her sister has run away with everything very quickly gets bad. Sam’s partner ends up dead, as does the man he was tailing. The police figure that Sam himself is the prime suspect in at least one of those murders. Sam’s a canny man though, he figures that he’s being played by the mysterious woman who has lied to him about everything from why she wanted a man tailed to what her name is.

Part of the problem with this movie for me is that I never for a moment saw any hint of romance between Humphrey Bogart and Mary Astor. As Brigid O’Shaughnessy Mary is convincing and manipulative. She’s a woman who never once seems to tell the whole truth, and the Sam is well aware of this. And yet there’s supposed to be some attraction between the two of them. The climactic moment at the finale of the movie relies on there being a connection between the two of them which forces Sam to make a choice between self preservation and love for Brigid. I don’t sense that necessary conflict, and it robs the movie of its power.

The other bad guys, however, are plenty of fun. Peter Lorre with his distinctive look and accent is fantastic as the weaselly and somewhat effete Joel Cairo. Then there’s Sydney Greenstreet as the corpulent Kasper Gutman, who seems honestly to enjoy Sam’s antics almost as much as the audience does. Perhaps even more so. I enjoyed watching both of them throughout the film.

This movie has everything you’d expect from your hard boiled detective drama. Double crossings. Mickey finns. Irish police officers. Murders. Tails. Guns. Even a kickass loyal dame who helps Sam out at every turn (and I really wish that the character of Effie were featured more prominently.) But I couldn’t help feeling at every turn that I had seen these cliches used better – even in some cases by the same actors we see here. I do wonder, though, if maybe they weren’t so cliched at the time. Perhaps the movie would have been more powerful to me if I had not been raised on so many stories that clearly used this movie as their inspiration. When you’ve seen Captain Picard playing on the holodeck as Terrance Dicks so many times in clear spoofs of precisely this kind of movie it tends to lessen the impact of the source material.

June 8, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 451 – The Spirit (2008)

The Spirit (2008) – May 25th, 2011

Tonight Andy said he needed something that wouldn’t make him think. And we do have a multitude of non-thinky movies left on our list. Movies that won’t tax the brain when trying to understand the plot or the purpose or anything like that. No serious themes that we’d want to spend pages pondering. No deep backstory for our personal connection to the movie. Nothing like that. Just something ridiculous and silly. So I looked through the list and dismissed a few things right off the bat. Dismissed a few others after looking them up. And then saw this and suggested it. I hadn’t seen it. Andy had. I knew it had been panned. And yet we owned it. So it seemed pretty much tailor made for tonight.

And I was right! Except I did end up having to think a bit when it came to trying to explain to myself how the movie could be as bad as it is. Really, I find it baffling. I can see so many things that were attempted and could have been done well and just weren’t. I’ve seen a couple of reviews describe this movie as “fun” and I have to wonder what their basis for comparison is. A root canal? The 1040 long form? Watching paint dry? Punch Drunk Love? I mean, this movie kept attempting humor but I don’t think it ever reached more than a moment or two of funny, let alone movie-long stretches of fun. What makes it so frustrating is the attempts that were made. Attempts in so many directions I honestly don’t know if the movie knew where it was going.

That right there is, I think, a large chunk of the problem. This is a comic book movie based on a serial I’m not familiar with. So I did a little reading and as far as I can tell it was a noirish detective serial that had a good dose of humor mixed into its regular plots and storylines. So I would expect there to be some humorous lines. But there aren’t just humorous lines dropped into an otherwise serious story. It’s this bizarre mix of parody and homage that never quite works, largely because the parody aspect needs firmer ground than it’s got. What, exactly, is it parodying? Sin City? I wouldn’t say Frank Miller can’t parody his own stuff, but it’s not like the movie is a genre unto itself. If it’s parodying noir in general it misses the mark completely because the bits that read as parody aren’t the femme fatale or the tough detective or the faithful lover or the gritty and dark city streets. The bits that read as parody are the comic book parts, with the clone henchmen and the out-of-nowhere Nazi villains and the hero himself.

On top of the problem with the uncertain tone is a distinct lack of focus on the part of the actors. Now, this is a more than decent cast. Samuel L. Jackson, Eva Mendez and Scarlett Johansson alone should have been able to breathe some life and vitality into this movie. But they don’t. Okay, Jackson does every so often, but he’s saddled with the most ridiculous part I think he’s ever played. And this is the man known for Snakes on a Plane. He’s playing the villain here, and he gets some great scenery chewing moments. Moments where I can see what Miller was going for. His obsession over a bizarre little failed clone that’s just a tiny head on a foot and his dislike of free range chickens? It’s so out of place and laughable but then he doesn’t get to really go anywhere with any of it. Each strange quirk gets carried for a line or two and then it’s played out. The Octopus (his character) has eight of everything? Great! Except we only hear that in the climactic fight scene. If you’re going to go whole hog and be that ridiculous then damn well do it! Don’t half-ass it and leave us hanging there, wondering if he was supposed to have eight henchmen and eight cats and eight labs or whatever. And to top it all off, remember I mentioned that the villain is an out-of-nowhere Nazi? Yeah. Complete with lightning bolt tattoo on the back of his head. What the everloving fuck? That’s not parody. That’s not canon as far as I can tell. It’s just tossed in there for no discernible reason aside from making him more of a villain? I don’t even. So all of Jackson’s hamming it up comes to naught because he’s got what is probably one of the worst roles I’ve ever witnessed on film and he can chew chew chew and it’s never going to make the role palatable.

Not that the rest of the characters are a whole lot better, but at least only one of them is an unnecessary Nazi (seriously, the Spirit himself has a cell phone so we’re not set in the 1940s). Sadly, she’s also the most lacklustre character of the bunch, and that’s saying something. My theory is that Scarlett Johansson signed on, then read the script and hoped she was missing something and by the time she realized she wasn’t it was too late to back out. It’s the only way I can explain her performance. I usually quite like her, but from her first lines it was pretty clear to me she was done with this movie. I’ve seen more interested reads done in high school English classes. She gets a couple of lines near the end that hint at the parody her character might have been trying to portray, but if a movie has to have a character flat out say that she’s a parody? The parody has failed.

The rest of the movie is just plain messy. It’s got this plot with the Spirit’s backstory and the Octopus being his nemesis and neither of them can die. But it’s also got some backstory from when the Spirit was a kid and not the Spirit yet and he had this girlfriend, Sand Saref, who ended up turning to crime. And now she’s stolen a crate with a vase full of blood in it instead of a crate full of some sort of treasure we never really find out too much about. The Octopus wants the vase full of blood and while one would think they’d arrange a trade right quick one would be wrong. Instead they faff about for an hour or so. The Octopus makes his hideous foot clone and Sand kills some people for kicks and the Spirit tries to track them down and his faithful doctor girlfriend waits for him to get carted into the hospital. And her father’s the police commissioner and he works with the Spirit, who used to be a cop before he died, but he doesn’t like his lone wolf techniques. And there’s a rookie who wishes she was Paget Brewster and a siren who’s actually death, I think, who tries to seduce the Spirit into dying whenever he gets close to death.

It’s not that it’s hard to follow! This is not a complicated movie. It’s just messily put together. Oh, visually it’s quite pretty, with the not quite black and white visuals with little hints and pops of color. Unfortunately it’s not handled as well as the other two black/white/bit-of-color movies I can think of, namely Sin City and Pleasantville. The former was stark, keeping the color to splashes and highlights. Red sneakers here, blue eyes there, yellow bastard in the corner. The latter used some more subtle and realistic shades, washing them in over skin and the pages of books and the leaves of trees. This movie hits somewhere in the middle. The Spirit’s tie is bright red, but the Octopus’ gloves have dark burgundy accents that barely read. It diminishes the whole effect and while the movie is pretty, it could have been so much more visually arresting.

I honestly don’t know what else I can say about this movie. I don’t know what else there is to say. It’s a movie that doesn’t quite know what it is. It’s got a great cast that’s wasted on clumsy lines and a messy plot. It’s got a director who has gone on record as having been so distracted by an actress in a skimpy outfit that he yelled cut instead of action (and if I was an actress in a movie where the director did that I’d be pretty pissed – just saying). It’s got flat humor and pointless Nazi villains and it is about as much fun as doing a sink full of dishes.

May 25, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Spirit

May 25, 2011

The Spirit

I had an awful day at work today, so I asked Amanda to pick out an escapist movie that wouldn’t require much thought. “I wouldn’t mind if it was cheesy and awful,” I said. Somehow Amanda knew, even though she had never seen this movie before, that this was just the kind of awful that I needed.

I bought this because I fell for the marketing. Samuel L. Jackson? Scarlett Johansson? Eva Mendes? In a film directed by Frank Miller that uses the visual style of Sin City? How could it fail? The answer is, of course, spectacularly.

What I should have remembered was that notwithstanding the success of the 300 and Sin City Frank Miller has a fairly uneven record with regards to movies. This film here is more of one from the author of Robocop 2 than from the co-director of Sin City. It’s pretty clear to me that what happened was that after working on the set with Robert Rodruiges Miller said to himself, “hey, I can do that!” and set out to make another movie using the same techniques, camera tricks, and look, but with a slightly different feel.

The biggest problem this movie has is that it is too similar to Sin City I think. You could mistake it for a knock off or a sequel were it not so hammy and silly throughout. It has the same monotone voice-overs and hard boiled noir feel. It has the same bold use of light and shadow. It has the same use of strategic color to evoke the feel of a comic book brought to life. The look and feel of Sin City is so distinctive that this movie ends up feeling derivative and because this film is so farcical in tone it feels lessened by the natural comparison.

I should state that I have never read the original Spirit comic books by Will Eisner. I have no idea if this adaptation is faithful or how much of what we see is Miller’s interpretation of Eisner’s work. I can only really speak to what works in the movie and what doesn’t. And there’s so much that simply doesn’t work.

The plot revolves around a super hero calling himself the Spirit who is gifted with amazing recuperative powers. He runs across the rooftops of Center City USA in a style familiar to anybody who has ready Miller’s Daredevil books, leaping over water towers and dashing along power lines. His nemesis is the similarly gifted Octopus, a crime lord who takes great pleasure in working out his frustrations by going toe to toe with the Spirit because neither of them, apparently, can die.

That’s pretty much the movie right there. There’s a whole lot of stuff about a girl from the Spirit’s past named Sand Serif who is a glamorous thief in pursuit of a mysterious treasure from antiquity. There’s the mystery of how the Spirit and the Octopus got their recuperative powers and who the Spirit was before he first died. There’s a level headed doctor who is romantically hung up on the Spirit and has some kind of past with him. (This character is actually one of the more puzzling things in the movie for me. She’s an intelligent woman who used to be romantically involved with the Spirit in his earlier life before he first died but doesn’t seem to recognise him any more. I was never able to figure out if this was a deliberate joke or if she was meant to be in tragic denial or what.) There’s the Octopus’ large collection of rather dim cloned henchmen who are meant to act as comic relief but mostly just make me wince. But when you boil the whole movie down there’s mostly just the Spirit and the Octopus beating each other up.

Part of what makes this movie so difficult to enjoy is that it tries so very hard to be farcical and funny. The whole tone of the film is slightly off-kilter and strange. The character names, like Sand Serif and the evil seductress Plaster of Paris are simply odd. The acting is outrageous and extreme (but not always.) There are moments of surreal oddity such as when the Octopus is dressed as a samurai with big shaggy side burns for no reason, or when he menaces the Spirit dressed as a Nazi SS officer with monocle. The whole film is filled with strange “What were they thinking” moments that leave me feeling befuddled and confused.

I have to wonder what kind of movie the actors in this film thought they were making. I mean, they were on a stage with no sets and minimal props, acting in front of a green screen. Samuel L. Jackson as the Octopus delivers one of the most outrageous over-the-top performances of his career. Scarlett Johansson as his sidekick Silken Floss looks as though she really doesn’t want to be there and is trying to get out of her contract. The actor portraying the commissioner of police, Dan Lauria plays his role almost completely straight as though he’s in a perfectly normal noir crime movie, but in the same scenes there’s Stana Katic as the eager rookie Morgenstern acting like a complete ham with big exaggerated gestures and body language. I have to assume that most of it is a result of Frank Miller’s directorial style, and I’m sure he was more intent on shot composition and achieving a particular look than on managing his actors’ performances.

This movie is a mess. It’s not as funny as it seems to think that it is, has an unlikable womanising lead character, is filled with odd performances, and feels very much as though it’s trying to be something more than it actually is. It’s not quite as bad as I remembered it being from the first time I watched it (I think my assessment that first time was tinged by my profound disappointment that it wasn’t at all what I had been expecting.) It is, however, pretty darned bad. I was in the mood for a bad movie today though, and this one nicely fits the bill. I wonder if there’s a riff-track.

May 25, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 402 – Miller’s Crossing

Miller’s Crossing – April 6th, 2011

I should not have watched this tonight. I’m having a very low energy evening after a tiring day and I should have taken the easy way out and watched something silly and simple and gentle on the brain. But I didn’t. Andy suggested this and I said sure and I should have known better because it’s the Coen brothers and they don’t do silly and simple and gentle on the brain. Okay, they do silly, but their version of silly usually involves screaming and people getting killed. But this isn’t silly. It’s the Coens’ version of a noir gangster flick and there is indeed screaming and people do indeed get killed. It’s also not simple or gentle on the brain. It’s got a twisty plot full of characters who don’t do much explaining. At one point I had to stop the movie and go over the set-up with Andy to make sure I had it right. And I didn’t. Like I said, low energy tonight.

When the movie begins we meet a number of sketchy characters. And I don’t mean that they’re not well developed. I mean they’re well developed to be sketchy. We’re talking gangsters and hit men and thugs and bookies and gamblers and snitches. We meet Johnny Caspar and Leo, two of the top level mob bosses in town. We meet their guys and find out that there’s some sort of rotten deal going on with fixed fights and someone leaking the fix and Leo’s protecting that someone (Bernie) and Johnny wants him dealt with but Leo won’t. Backing Leo up is Tom. And Tom? Tom is the one to watch. The movie revolves around Tom. He’s the central figure in a major battle between two rival mobs as they duke it out for control of the city. Tom’s a tricky one to figure out until you realize he’s really quite simple.

Tom is a survivor. Throughout the movie you see Tom cross and double cross and triple cross everyone. He sides with Leo, he fights with Leo, he goes over to Johnny, he calls the police on both sides and plays them like pianos. But he’s also always getting himself beat up. If he planned it all, it seems like a lot of it is awfully sloppy. But I don’t believe he planned it all. I believe that he is a clever man who can read a situation and go with whatever will hopefully get him out. When the situation changes, he changes his plan to suit. It’s fascinating for me to watch and to be honest, he reminds me of a character I very much enjoy, so once I realized what he was doing, I enjoyed watching him a lot more.

And it was tough going for a while there. The Coens like to present you with a number of unlikable or only semi-likable characters and let you struggle to pick out who you’re going to care about. But in a movie like this you really shouldn’t care about anyone. Don’t get attached, because they’re all bad guys, even Verna, Leo’s girlfriend (whom Tom is sleeping with). So I think it’s better to not care about these people. Instead look for things to find interesting about them. I don’t really care about Tom as a person. But do I want to see him survive the movie? Yes. Because I wanted to see how he’d manage it.

As the movie goes on, with Tom getting himself in deeper and deeper and people getting killed and people disappearing, it starts to look like no one’s going to make it out alive. Everyone’s got it in for everyone else and it’s going to come down to who gets to fire first. I really wish I’d been more on top of my game tonight so I could have appreciated the twists and turns a little better. What I did appreciate were the performances. I can honestly say I really truly loved Gabriel Byrne as Tom. Watching him work through each new development became my reason for continuing to pay attention to the movie. And I have to give some serious credit to Albert Finney as Leo and J.E. Freeman as Eddie Dane, one of Johnny’s thugs. Jon Polito and John Turturro were both good as Johnny and Bernie, respectively, but to be honest I don’t think either had to stretch much for the roles they were given. I wish there’d been more of a role for Marcia Gay Harden as Verna, but I wasn’t shocked that there wasn’t. Still, she did well with what she had.

Halfway through this movie I wasn’t enjoying it terribly much. I could acknowledge that it was pretty and that the score was bizarrely light (it’s not the minor key sort of sound you expect) and that the combination of the visuals and score and performances made for a nicely put together movie. But I wasn’t having fun watching it. And then, well, I latched onto Tom and that was all it took. Maybe on another day I’d feel differently about it and if that sort of character doesn’t do it for you then, well, I can’t be of much help. It did it for me. Not my favorite Coen brothers movie, but it does have a Coen brothers character who’s now high on my list.

April 6, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Miller’s Crossing

April 6, 2011

Miller’s Crossing

It has been years and years since I saw this movie. My recollection is that I saw it at my grandparents’ house on premium cable back when cable was a new and revolutionary thing for me. I had seen Raising Arizona and I had seen the previews for this movie and I was curious to see what kind of gangland mobster movie the creators of that madcap comedy had cooked up. I would say this is the most linear and “normal” movie I can think of in the Coen Brothers’ oeuvre. It’s got an insanely intricate plot with a lot of characters to keep track of. It’s a twisted tale of double and triple crosses and if you don’t pay careful attention you’ll miss what’s going on.

Amanda has observed in the past when we watched Coen Brothers movies that they usually involve innocent people getting hurt. Even the comedies. This movie bucks that trend in that it doesn’t involve any innocent people. It’s a gritty tale of hardened gangsters at war in prohibition era Chicago and even the honest ones are cold hearted killers. Our protagonist (I hesitate to use the word “hero”) is the most duplicitous and heartless of them all.

Part of what makes this movie what it is is that we the audience are not given much help figuring out who all the characters are and what their various motivations are. We’re thrown right into things and have to quickly figure things out as they’re happening. I enjoy this sort of thing because I like having to figure a world out. Amanda was not feeling too sharp tonight (and I had the advantage of having had the day off) so early on we paused the movie to see if I could summarise just who was who and what was going on. Here is roughly what we figured out:

There are two mob bosses here. There’s the irritating and dangerously insecure Johnny Caspar. He is upset because the odds on a series of rigged fights he’s been betting on are going down. As soon as he places a bet somebody is leaking the fact that the fix is in and all kinds of other people are profiting from the hard work he has done rigging the fights. (Interestingly this same situation was involved in the opening for Lucky Number Sleven, but that’s an entirely different film.) At the start of the movie Johnny and his taciturn right hand man Eddie Dane have come to visit rival mob boss Leo because Johnny wants, in a show of fairness and to avoid a gang war, to warn Leo that Johnny intends to kill the bookie Bernie Bernbaum who he believes is responsible for the leak. Leo is unwilling to simply give up Bernie though. He says it’s because Bernie is paying him protection money, but Leo’s lieutenant Tom Regan knows the real reason. Leo has been spending a lot of time recently with Bernie’s sister Verna.

Now things get complicated. What Leo doesn’t know is that Tom is sleeping with Verna. Things get complicated, especially for Tom, because in order to protect Velma Leo has put a tail on her. That tail (a guy with a toupee called “The Rug”) gets shot in an alleyway and everything starts to go to hell. Leo assumes that Caspar had the tail killed. Tom thinks it was probably Verna, who like Tom himself is always playing the angles and does whatever she can to help herself and her brother. Leo sends the local police, who are in his pocket, on a raid of one of Caspar’s clubs and Caspar retaliates by sending a hit squad to kill Leo. It’s war.

There’s also some kind of love triangle going on between Dane, another bookie named Mink, and Bernie. Sort of the mirror of the one between Leo, Verna and Tom. Dane is protecting Mink from Caspar, and doesn’t know that Mink and Bernie are an item. Bernie is playing his own games – he’s just a guy who can’t resist using any advantage that comes in his direction, be it a tip about a fight or some kind of leverage he can use to improve his station.

Throughout the movie we follow Tom. He’s the one guy who seems most of the time to know what’s going on. He understands the crooked minds of the people around him and isn’t above manipulating them if he can. I would not exactly say that he is a sympathetic character. He’s just a smart guy trying to stay afloat in a world of double dealings and violence. He’s not particularly nice to Verna, although he does seem to have some qualms about killing her brother. About the only good thing that can be said about him is that he steadfastly refuses to accept anybody else’s help settling his massive gambling debts. (He’s not particularly good at picking horses it would appear.)

This movie’s problem is that it doesn’t really have anybody to root for. Tom is the protagonist, but he’s a slimy bastard a lot of the time. His friend Leo is a good enough guy for a crime boss, and you do kind of feel bad when they have a falling out over Verna, but he’s not the focus of the movie. The bloodthirsty and unstoppable Dane is probably the most honest and straight shooting character in the film, but he’s a brutal bastard who can only afford to be honest because he can beat the hell out of everybody around him. Verna herself is hard to figure. Maybe Tom is right and she’s just playing the angles, and it is certainly hard to figure out why she stays with Tom when he’s such a bastard to her, but maybe she actually cares about him. Her brother Bernie, the source of all the problems, seems like a nice enough guy at first, but ultimately is proven to be perhaps the most manipulative and heartless character in the whole film. So although I enjoy going along for the ride here and I like all the twists and turns I don’t find myself very heavily invested in how things turn out.

It’s too bad I can’t care more about the movie too, because it is a very polished and well put together film. It doesn’t have a very Coen Brothers feel to it most of the time (except for one fairly strange scene near the end of the movie.) It doesn’t rely on cool camera tricks or brilliant writing, although it has examples of both. The shot of a hat blowing through the woods behind the opening title is brilliant, and must have been hell for the focus puller operating the camera as the hat drifts further and further into the distance. Mink’s speech to Tom in Leo’s club is a great example of Coen Brothers dialog combined with one of their favorite actors (Steve Buscemi.) Indeed the entire cast is fantastic, from other Coen Brothers favorites like John Turturro to the desperate but always completely cool portrayal of Tom by Gabriel Byrne.

I really wish I could like this movie more. It’s gorgeously shot, well acted, and well written. It’s a cool and convoluted plot and I love seeing characters with conflicting interests thrown together like this. I just don’t really care about any of these people, which decreases the impact of the movie for me. If I want a hard boiled noir detective story created by the Coen Brothers I’m much more likely to turn to No Country for Old Men. Or Blood Simple. Or The Big Lebowski for that matter.

April 6, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 359 – Lucky Number Slevin

Lucky Number Slevin – February 22nd, 2011

There is a trick with noir-type thrillers and mysteries where even when you know what sort of movie they are you still don’t know precisely how they will twist and turn and set everything up. And so reviewing them becomes difficult, because the fun in the movie is in the discovery. Now, for me, that discovery often takes place when I read a synopsis or spoilers. See, I don’t mind spoilers. At all. Andy hates them and I can understand why, but there’s a part of me that’s been so annoyed with so many “twist” endings in the past that I like to know what I’m getting into. If it sounds good, I stick with it. If it sounds bad I check out. Saves me emotional investment in something that will piss me off.

So I read a bit about this movie and while it gave me the cold hard facts, it didn’t really tell me how everything would go down. The plot points, yes. The performances, no. And the plot points sounded interesting enough that I wanted to see how the performances sold them and I would like to state for the record that the performances sold them very well indeed. This is a story of mob bosses and crime and bookies and assassinations and mistaken identity and vengeance. It’s all very cleverly done without much slight of hand at all, really. There’s something important missing for most of the movie, but otherwise it’s all there, plain to see. I like that.

It helps the movie that the main character, Slevin, is played by Josh Hartnett with an affable demeanor that you can’t help smiling at. He comes off as just the unluckiest guy ever and while yes, it fazes him a little, mostly he just seems resigned to it. After all, what the hell can he do, right? He has no ID and two rival gangs think he’s this other guy, Nick, and Nick owes them both a good deal of money. He can’t prove he’s not Nick, and Nick is nowhere to be found. Meanwhile, there’s a mysterious hitman named Goodkat who seems to have his fingers in both pies. Clearly, it’s a set-up. So when the Boss, leader of one gang, tells Slevin to do him a favor and he’ll count Nick’s debt paid off, Slevin reluctantly agrees. And he’s so calm about it, you know he’s got a trick up his sleeve because the favor is to kill the Boss’s rival’s son in retaliation for his own son’s death, which he believes his rival had a hand in. And the rival, the Rabbi? He’s been talking to Slevin too. He wants his money.

And the whole time Slevin is in Nick’s apartment, because he thought he was going to be staying with Nick but clearly Nick isn’t there and the only person who is there is Nick’s neighbor, Lindsey. And Lindsey seems to be a regular Nancy Drew and is hot on the case of Nick’s disappearance. Slevin and Lindsey get friendly and Slevin explains to her what’s going on and he’s just so very blown away by it. After all, what a coincidence! What a horrible coincidence. The two of them give this movie the tone it has. Because when you’re in the penthouses with the Boss (Morgan Freeman) and the Rabbi (Ben Kingsley) or the surveillance van where detective Brikowski (Stanley Tucci) is keeping an eye on all? When you’re seeing Goodkat (Bruce Willis) idly snap the neck of someone he’s talking to? This is a very dark movie indeed with very bad stuff happening. But when you’re watching Slevin and Lucy Liu as Lindsey chat in Nick’s apartment, trying to work through what’s going on and just how Slevin’s going to get out of it? It takes on a decidedly different tone of very dark but very funny humor. Their interactions are fun and full of chemistry. They banter, which is fantastic, and you get a good feel for both of them.

Now, if I was going to spoil the movie and go into the specifics of how it’s all worked out, I could probably do some armchair analysis of a couple of characters’ psyches and go into my one quibble with the movie. But I’m not going to. The synopsis is out there. I found it easily enough. What I will say is that there’s a particular plot point near the end which I felt cheapened things a bit, but having read about the alternative, I agree it would have been too dark. It would have been nice if there had been some middle ground, but there wasn’t. But it doesn’t take away from the cleverness or the wit or the humor or the crime or the vengeance. Because even with that bit, the performances still sell it.

February 22, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 338 – The Limey

The Limey – February 1st, 2011

I vaguely recall when this movie came out, seeing ads for it on television and thinking it looked good. After all, it had Terence Stamp in it, and I love Terence Stamp. As an aside, I still hold a grudge against the Star Wars prequels for having Terence Stamp and wasting him. When you have an actor like Stamp you need to give him something awesome to work with, and it definitely looked like this movie did. And then? I don’t know. I never got around to it. But that’s the whole point of a project like this. To get around to all the movies I’ve meant to see for years and never think of putting in when I have time and only think about when I’m too busy or at work or something. And thank goodness, because this was fantastic.

It is a movie about a man on a mission. It’s a movie about family and the choices people make and where those choices lead them. But mostly it is about a man on a mission, and as such it as a very tight focus. We don’t get to know many of the characters terribly well, but we’re given glimpses of them in relation to our lead character, Wilson. Now, when I say Wilson is a bad ass, I don’t think it truly communicates just what he is. He is a Bad Ass. He’s cool and calm and utterly capable of fucking your shit up without breaking a sweat. And the whole time he’ll be peppering his speech with Cockney Rhyming Slang and you’ll be having your ass kicked and you won’t even know why. All you will know is that you never want this man after you ever again. He is that sort of lead man.

Wilson is in LA investigating the death of his daughter, Jenny. He’s an ex-con, just out of a nine year stint in prison in England, and he’s convinced that the accident she supposedly died in was no accident. When he arrives he looks up the man who mailed him information about her death and that meeting leads him on the path to his daughter’s death. She was dating a somewhat slimy music promoter named Terry Valentine. There was a drug deal involved, money laundering, thugs, and Valentine’s personal chief of security, an even slimier guy named Avery. And Wilson slips right in, causing trouble and finding leads. He even tangles with the DEA and comes out on top. He tracks down Valentine and deals with every obstacle in his way, somehow also making friends with Ed (who wrote to him) and Elaine, his daughter’s acting coach.

For a movie about drug deals and hit men and the like, it’s a remarkably quiet piece. It’s a thriller, really, semi-noir, but still. It’s quiet. Peaceful, almost, which I believe comes from the concept that the vast majority of it is supposed to be memory. It’s an interesting aesthetic. Actually, most of the movie is a collection of interesting aesthetics. From the sometimes off-center shot composition to the occasional flashlight-like spotlighting to the disconnected visuals and dialogue. It’s all carefully crafted to seem a little off-kilter and a little unreal.

The scene where Wilson and Elaine are talking, getting to know each other through their shared connection of Jenny, has this gentle piano music playing in the background and it reminds me of nothing so much as a scene in Diva. There’s something oddly serene about it. Incongruous with the action and tension and danger of the rest of the movie. It could feel out of place, but it doesn’t. It’s a spot of contrasting color. It crops up every once in a while throughout the movie, but that scene in particular struck me. It’s the fond memory – the positive bit – in the middle of something unpleasant but necessary. It sets the whole movie apart for me as a sort of anti-thriller. There are thriller aspects to it, certainly, but it was rare that I actually felt tense or thrilled. It was more of a glide.

Everything in this movie is stylized and, as I said, tightly focused. It is the story of a man. We even get to see some early footage of Terence Stamp from the 1967 movie Poor Cow, set up to be memories Wilson has of his youth (and my goodness, take a look at him – hot). But it’s also the story of his mission and the people it brings him in contact with. Ed, played by Luis Guzman, is a great foil for him and Elaine, played by Lesley Ann Warren, is an interesting not-quite-love-interest. There’s something there, but it’s never quite realized. After all, that’s not part of Wilson’s mission. And then there’s Peter Fonda as Valentine, a nemesis who doesn’t quite work out that way. It’s a well crafted movie and a well scripted movie and a well acted movie and Terence Stamp is most certainly not wasted here.

February 1, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 240 – Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow – October 26th, 2010

The only excuse I can come up with for not having seen this before is that until this project, I wasn’t making time in my days to watch movies and I’d never come across it on television. It has a few actors I really enjoy watching (Jude Law and Angelina Jolie) and the mood is this great mix of noir ambiance, adventure serial and steampunk timeline. Oh, and it’s got Bai Ling. How could I resist? And yet I’d never seen it. I’d only heard the title and heard the Futurama “Welcome to the WOOOOOOOOORLD of TOMORROW!” line in my head and never bothered to put it in. So very foolish of me.

According to IMDB, it was, at one point, envisioned as a serial, in the vein of Commando Cody and Undersea Kingdom, which makes perfect sense to me, since my first reaction to Sky Captain himself was to think of Commando Cody. Fortunately for Joe “Sky Captain” Sullivan, he doesn’t have to tweak his nipple knobs to take to the sky. No, he gets a good old airplane to zip around in. There is a jet pack in the movie, but a more awesome character gets it. Everything about this movie is homage to the classic adventure serials and movies and comics of the 1930s, 1940s and early 1950s. It’s got giant robots (some with awesome tentacle arms), an island full of dinosaurs, a mad scientist, a rocket that will incinerate Earth, a plucky and brash reporter and a dashing and brusque pilot, a genius sidekick and a mysterious villain! It’s got explosions and daring chases and evil plots that stretch around the world. It is everything a pulpy serial could ever want, filmed entirely in bluescreen and starring some big name actors.

Now, I mentioned noir above and the movie certainly has a noir-ish feel to it. Part of it is the overall lighting effects and visual style of the movie, as well as the time period. But it’s also got its opening scenes, with a mysterious package being delivered to reporter Polly Perkins. Her whole introduction feels like something out of a murder mystery smack in the middle of the 1940s, except soon enough there are giant robots in the streets of New York and Sky Captain himself is introduced in his plane, shooting the robots and seemingly saving the day. Hooray Sky Captain! Of course it turns out that Polly and Joe have some history together and of course they need each other to discover what’s been going on with the giant robots and seven missing scientists. So off they go, racing to Nepal to save their mechanical genius friend, Dex, who’s been kidnapped by the robots and taken off to the source of robots’ commanding signal. Adventures abound, as does snarky banter between Polly and Joe.

To be honest, I could have done with a little less period-authentic attitude from Joe. I want to like my heroes, not spend more than a handful of moments in the movie wanting to slap him for being an ass. And Polly’s fine much of the time, but she had her moments too. Really, they deserve each other. Good thing there’s more to like about them than dislike. Polly’s stubborn and certainly brave, if not always thinking ahead about what her bravery will do. Joe’s very good at what he does, which is flying mostly, but also being a hero, which is kind of the point. But they both come across as the sort of people who get into trouble and then get out of it through their own determination and wits. I like that sort of thing in a character (or two). So I can forgive the misogyny, or at least cheer when a certain crack pilot gets punched later on.

After reading that there’d been at least some thought about making this a serial, I started paying attention to it that way and I can see it. There are some episodic bits, going from place to place, plot point to plot point, crisis to crisis. But really, it all flows very nicely. It feels cohesive, and has a great overarching plot that ties everything together. No, it’s not anything astounding that will make you gasp or surprise you in any way, but that’s not the point. Going into this, you’re supposed to expect the mad scientist planning on destroying Earth. That’s a given. Very little here is shocking at all. But fun? Oh yes. The huge flying airstrips (where we meet Angelina Jolie’s Franky), the tentacle-armed robots, the tiny elephant? All fun. Same for the plot and the script. It’s the sort of movie that makes you grin because it’s so obviously in love with its source material and thrilled to be presenting it in a new light.

Given how this movie was made, with the blue screen work and all, and its main cast of known names, mixed with its odd modern take on classic serials, I’m not surprised that it’s slipped through the cracks for some people. It’s really too bad. I’d love to see a sequel, to be honest. But I’m guessing a sequel to this is as likely as a sequel to Buckaroo Banzai. Still, wouldn’t Sky Captain Against the World Crime League be a fantastic idea?

October 26, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment