Monday, February 17, 2014

2014 Movies: I don't know what the link is between all of these, so I'll just go ahead and say "FREEDOM"

Hi everybody! A little bit longer this week since I finally got around to writing about The Apartment and Drug War, two movies I had watched on New Year's day, before I started writing about movies I was watching this year. Hope you like these things!

The Apartment (1960) Billy Wilder

After finishing this movie, I just could not believe that it gets filed under the Comedy section.  I suppose it does end on a sweet note, but man.  I just have a rough time with movies where a mostly good person just spends the entire time getting dumped on (see also: Synecdoche New York).  I liked this movie a lot, though I guess things like this, where pretty much everyone is an asshole, are just frustrating to me.  Jack Lemmon is funny and sympathetic, but I spent the entire movie just wishing I could step in there and tell every one of his bosses to fuck right off.  He eventually gets around to it, but it’s not the big spectacle we’re hoping for.  He finally stands up for himself, then quietly walks out, getting ready for a move to another city and another job.  Fran runs to his apartment and they end up playing their card game and they’re friends now, so it ends up a win for the good guys, but they really drag you through the mud to get that happy ending.  Makes you feel like you’ve earned it, I guess.

Drug War (2013, North America) Johnnie To

I haven’t really been exposed to a lot of these Hong Kong crime-type movies, but I’ve liked what I’ve seen so far.  It seemed like for a while everyone in my circle of internet friends was just raving about this one, so I figured I had to check it out, and this one was good, I liked it.  However, with the way that everyone had been talking it up I guess I was expecting something with The Raid: Redemption levels of crazy, and it’s my fault I guess for having those sorts of expectations and being let down that Drug War just couldn’t meet those expectations.  It’s not even really that fair to compare the two as they are both trying to offer up a different experience.  The Raid: Redemption is fast-paced and gleeful fighting and action, while Drug War is very slow and steady, with less of an emphasis on high octane action in favor of a more deliberate look at clever Police work and investigating.  Drug War’s got action, don’t worry (the shootout with the deaf brothers and the final fight in front of that school were particularly exciting), but I think the thrills that I got with this movie came more from watching this relentless detective sticking with the case and the Mission: Impossible-style operations he pulls off with his crew.  It’s a pretty straightforward crime story, and while it may not be doing anything all that different, Drug War is still a solid, confident movie that excels on the well-tread ground of Crime Thrillers.

Bernie (2011) Richard Linklater

This one’s based on a real bummer of a true story.  Jack Black plays the nicest guy in town who ends up befriending and then murdering Shirley MacLaine, the meanest old woman in town.  The movie’s divided up with interview segments from some of the actual people in the actual town of Carthage, Texas where all this happened, and they’re all great.  I could’ve sworn some of them were like lesser known character actors or something, but they were all real people and funny and excited to tell their take on the story.

Jack Black takes the titular role in this one, and I think he’s amazing.  He’s a dude who has his shtick, sure, but over the years it seems as if he’s refined it and he’s found a way to make it work with his roles (it also helps that some roles are specifically for him and his shtick).  Bernie is a sort of weird vehicle for Jack Black, but it speaks to his ability that he can inhabit a more subdued role like this one and still manage to make it his own.  He pulls off big friendly guy in any of his roles pretty easily, but this one feels like it has an added layer of real tenderness and kindness, maybe even a touch of loneliness.  

Bernie is a look at a good man who loves his life and the people in it and how he is slowly broken by a hateful person.  It’s almost unreal how good and generous this guy is.  I’m not sure how much of this is my own view and how much of this is the movie’s intent, but it felt to me like Bernie, despite all his involvement with the people in his community, was a lonely person.  Maybe I just feel like living a truly selfless life seems lonely and I’m projecting my own biases onto this movie.  (Is that messed up?  Am I messed up to think that?)  In any case, if we’re going with the idea that there’s some loneliness in Bernie, it adds another dimension to examine in his murdering Marjorie, namely that perhaps their relationship gets started both out of Bernie’s generosity as well as their shared loneliness.  Sort of related: Was Bernie gay?  I think the movie kind of suggests that, and it would certainly supplement my idea that Bernie was a lonely person.  Being secretly gay in a small Texas town would bring about those sorts of feelings, I’d imagine.

Anyway, watching Marjorie slowly take away Bernie’s joy and freedom is difficult and heartbreaking, and Jack Black does a wonderful job of finding the bits of humor in this bleak situation while still being respectful in showing Bernie’s struggle to keep his dignity intact.

Airplane! (1980) Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, Jerry Zucker

It’s probably exaggerating to say this movie changed my life, but I don’t know, maybe it did?  I remember for a couple of years when I was a kid my mom would take my sister and me out to Blockbuster to rent movies, and I guess my mom decided it was time to rent something funny that didn’t have the Power Rangers on the cover, so she picked up Mel Brooks’s High Anxiety for us, and that just got us going.  I don’t really remember much about High Anxiety but I remember my sister and I loving it, so within the next couple of visits to Blockbuster my mom introduced us to History of the World, Robin Hood: Men in Tights, And Now For Something Completely Different, Young Frankenstein, and Airplane!, among others.  We were big on dumb movies, and watching Airplane! now I understand some jokes a lot better than I did when I was like ten or whatever, but they’re all still such dumb jokes, and that’s what makes movies like this charming for me.

The jokes in Airplane! are all so tight and varied.  It’s mostly all dumb jokes, but they come at you from all angles, at all speeds, so you have to pay attention.  Dumb visual gags, dumb wordplay, and jokes that were only relevant to America in 1980.  They’re all there and they’re all fun.  There’s no sense of self importance, no high minded attitude about changing the comedic landscape, it’s just a movie that has a lot of good dumb jokes trying to get a laugh out of you.  Airplane! probably took such a hold on me when I was a kid because it was what I wanted to be -- something funny and silly and unafraid to be itself.

A movie brimming with dumb jokes isn’t always everyone’s cup of tea (sometimes it’s not even my cup of tea either), but I think there’s a particular sweet spot you have to be in when you first watch these movies.  You have to be young and dumb and receptive for these sorts of things to take hold in your brain, but I think it’s possible to watch and appreciate these dumb joke movies as an adult.  The key as an adult is of course being open and receptive, but also taking these movies in context.  It helps make dated topical references funny again in a sort of repurposed way; like the humor comes in the joke you see, but it also works when you think back like “Ah, this joke about Reagan being a whatever movie star was what was funny to people in 1980.”  I don’t know, I think the instinct is to just throw those topical jokes away as irrelevant products of the past, but I think they can still be funny in a time-capsule-y sort of way.  Ask me again when I watch Scary Movie or some shit in twenty years.

Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011) Sean Durkin

I don’t think I’ve been more relieved for a movie to be over.  But even by the end of the movie it’s still not really over, is it?  I’m getting ahead of myself, sorry, but what a harrowing movie.  It’s a very slow, quiet thing, and it’s difficult to watch because you can just feel that something bad is about to happen.  John Hawkes does an excellent job at instilling a sense of dread in every scene, and we feel a genuine sense of concern for Elizabeth Olsen’s character even though she never comes off as someone very likeable.  You just know that no one should be put through the sort of manipulation and abuse that she’s experiencing and you fear for her.  She’s difficult and closed off and it’s not entirely her fault.  From the way her sister interacts with her after she escapes from the commune she’s been living on, we get the sense that Martha wasn’t the ideal sister or friend to begin with, but after witnessing the flashbacks to her life on the commune with Patrick and the rest of them psychologically/emotionally/sexually abusing her, it’s tough to hold her aloofness against her.

Compounding all of this trauma is that Martha has no way of expressing the abuse that she’s been through.  It seems that she came to Patrick’s commune when she was the most vulnerable and receptive to his brand of manipulation, and by the time she makes her escape she’s still unsure about what’s happened to her.  She needed a purpose, a direction, somewhere to belong, and Patrick gave what seemed like all that to her.  That she doesn’t even have a vocabulary to express what she’s been through is one of the more frustrating things.  Weren’t those people her friends?  Couldn’t she have left any time?  She escapes to her sister, the only family she has, but she still can’t find acceptance, and whether that’s due to her traumatic experience or the fact that she and her sister never really got along to begin with is unknown and confusing to her.  Martha’s experiencing a great deal of conflicting emotions and and confusion, making it difficult for her to tell which of her thoughts and feelings are even her own, which in turn further distances her from her estranged sister’s hospitality.

The ending was interesting to me.  Martha sees someone watching her taking a swim.  Later, when she is being driven to the city to see some sort of doctor or therapist, we see maybe the same person get into a car which begins to follow the car she’s in, and then that’s it.  That’s the end of the movie.  There’s no resolution, and it’s one of the more scary endings I’d ever seen.  The camera stays focused on Martha throughout that final sequence, and we never really see the face of this man who’s following her.  The tight focus on Martha and the uncertainty about who this person is and what’s happening bring us in closer to Martha, making the space almost claustrophobic, crowding the backseat with Martha’s palpable fear and distress.  The quick cut to the end credits means she’s disappeared from our lives and we will never know what happens to her.  With Martha gone, the only thing we have left is fear.

The Addams Family (1991) Barry Sonnenfeld

We’ve all seen this one, right?  I love this movie, bad jokes and all.  I love the Addams’s weird bizarro speak (unhappy=happy, that sort of thing), I love all the dumb hand jokes whenever they talk to Thing (“Thanks for lending a. . . hand!”), I love the obvious “we’re all pretty weird if you think about it” ethos, I love the fuckin’ Mamushka, I love Raúl Juliá, I love all of Gomez and Morticia’s very quick and dry throwaway punchlines.  But what I love most is how loving and supportive all of the Addamses are.  It’s a movie about a family who just loves each other so goddamn much in spite of everyone around them, and it makes me so happy to see that.

Tessa told me that they had originally shot two endings.  The one we get is that Gary was Fester all along, which I appreciate because it just fits with the zaniness of this movie, but the other one had no secret reveal, it was just Gary all along, deciding he would stay and live with them as Fester.  I like this supposed alternate ending as I think it fits better with this character Gary, an outcast who finds total and pure acceptance in this family of outcasts.  It fits with Gary/Fester’s character arc as well as the overall message of love and acceptance.  Anyway, what we get is nice too, and it’s silly, so, whatever, it works.

Friday, February 7, 2014

2014 Movies: Three funny movies

It's a little bit lighter this time around, but here are the movies I saw this week. All of them were funny, but only two of them were supposed to be.

Cry-Baby (1990) John Waters

One of my favorite kinds of stories are stories about shitty teenagers, and this one’s got shitty teens to spare. Tessa describes it as "everything that Grease was afraid to be."  Cry-Baby is John Waters going all out with his love of 50’s Camp and his enthusiasm in this movie is infectious.  He’s great at finding silly little details in the Teenage Tragedy Song model and blowing them up, exposing how funny and ridiculous a teenage romance can be.  Every actor gives a hilarious performance, finding the perfect level of funny and sincere, and never taking any of it too seriously.  It’s a quintessential campy movie and the rock n roll / doo wop songs fit the mood perfectly.  Anyway I loved this movie, and I don’t think I have much in the way of analysis for this one, so here’s a bullet point list of some things I liked:

  • Hatchet-face’s awful, awful makeup
  • Every teenager referring to themselves as teenagers
  • All the parents hanging out, embarrassing their teenagers
  • That scene in the charm school where that one Square is imagining being married, and that one girl is imagining Johnny Depp’s face on everyone
  • Cry-Baby’s tragic story about his father being executed
  • Cry-Baby’s electric chair tattoo
  • That scene where literally EVERYONE is making out on a blanket in the park
  • The scenes in Turkey Point all look like the most chill place to have a summer party
  • That song Cry-Baby sings in jail
  • How all the Squares travel by bunny hop dance
  • The daring prison breakout mix-up
  • Everyone’s gross open mouth kissing on the dance floor
  • That last song they sing while The Squares and The Drapes play a game of Chicken
  • Remembering that Johnny Depp once had a talent for bringing an unsettling strangeness to a role

Battlefield Earth (2000) Roger Christian

I’d been avoiding this movie for so long because I’d heard it was just terrible, but after reading Lawrence Wright’s incredible Scientology exposé Going Clear last year I figured I had to just see for myself.  As it turns out, Battlefield Earth is not a very good movie, but I was surprised to find out how watchable it was, at least for maybe the first hour-ish?  I guess I was just expecting something very self-serious and not fun, but this movie is bad the way a dumb, substanceless kids’ movie cash-grab is.  It’s such a goofy movie and a lot of what I liked about it was how surprising that was to me, so I doubt even the parts I did enjoy would hold up in a rewatch.  I don’t really remember much of what this movie was about, something about aliens called Psychlos (from the planet “Psychlo,” speaking their native language “Psychlo”) strip-mining the earth and enslaving humanity, and Barry Pepper leads a human revolution or something.

All the human portions are boring, predictable garbage, but all the Psychlo stuff with John Travolta and Forest Whitaker is fun, schlocky garbage.  Travolta’s character is a smart, top-of-his-class kind of guy who is trapped on earth working a job he thinks he’s too good for, surrounded by people/Psychlos he thinks are beneath him.  He’s more arrogant than intelligent, and he plays this role like a sort of alien version of Kelsey Grammer’s titular character on Frasier (which I guess casts Forest Whitaker as Roz?  I’m not sure, I haven’t seen that much Frasier).  Travolta’s hammin’ it up like one of those cartoonish villains in a kids’ movie from the mid to late nineties.  He’s over the top and obviously evil, but he’s also just so silly.  Every other scene is a big monologue about his master plan and how much he hates earth and his own superiors, but when you remove the human enslavement half of the equation, Battlefield Earth just becomes a movie about a guy who hates his shitty job.  There doesn’t seem to be much difference between Psychlo culture and human culture, at least with what we’re given in the movie.  Psychlos work for a living, they get drunk, they let off steam, they’re just a bunch of regular joes showing up to their boring jobs every day.  It’s funny stuff, but man, I really doubt it was on purpose.  I didn’t really mind most of it, but when a movie is pushing two hours this sort of stuff wears thin, especially considering that the last almost half hour of the movie is an incomprehensible action scene.  Anyway, it’s good for a couple laughs, I guess, but it’s hard to enjoy a movie that gives you so little to care about.

The Jerk (1979) Carl Reiner

This is one of my favorite comedies.  It’s a rise and fall-type story about a total idiot lucking into fame and fortune, but it’s never mean-spirited and it doesn’t revel in any character’s suffering.  It never aspires to be anything more than a goofy comedy, and by understanding what it is and what it wants to do, The Jerk gives off a purposeful sort of joy that works to keep the movie fresh.  Whenever I watch this movie, I’m just in awe of the timing that Steve Martin and Bernadette Peters have.  They’re mostly dumb, throwaway lines, but the sheer volume of them is impressive.  30 Rock does something similar where it’s just joke after joke after joke after joke, so quick that by the time you’ve processed and reacted to that first joke they’re already wrapping up their third, but I think The Jerk’s jokes are a little bit more evenly paced, much less frantic than 30 Rock, and I think that’s due to a difference in format.  30 Rock doesn’t have the luxury of time like The Jerk so the frantic pacing and the assault of jokes happens because of the half-hour time constraint.  

The Jerk takes advantage of the longer movie format, particularly in how they have space to just let jokes develop.  There’s this one scene where Navin is in bed with Marie, and while she sleeps, Navin tenderly whispers to her how even though they’ve only known each other for “four weeks and three days” it feels like “nine weeks and five days.”  Navin continues to sweetly ramble, going day by day and figuring out the math behind this sentiment, and it becomes one of those jokes where the comedy comes not only in the lines that he says, but also that you’ve been watching him parse it out for a full two minutes.  It’s hilarious, but there’s  a sweetness and earnestness to The Jerk that you don’t typically get out of these sorts of screwball comedies.  It’s a very self aware movie, but it is never embarrassed to be itself.  It’s happy to be a comedy and that obsessive desire to generate laughter seeps into the other aspects of the movie.  For example, the romance between Navin and Marie sometimes verges toward the saccharin, but just as it is about to cross over that line, Steve Martin and Bernadette Peters swoop in with perfect comedic timing (and a trumpet solo) to simultaneously undercut and supplement the romance.  I think that the variety to the delivery of the jokes, that the humor can come verbally, visually, conceptually, time-ly, etc.-ly, is one of the major strengths of The Jerk, as well as something that allows it to change emotional trajectory and still be fun after so many rewatches.

Monday, February 3, 2014

2014 Movies: This one's about bad guys with money. Also I saw Spirited Away for the first time.

The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) Martin Scorcese

Man.  This was a looong movie.  I liked it well enough, but I guess there was some kind of controversy around this one about whether or not it was satire.  All of the scenes of capitalist excess are supposed to be so over the top that it just has to be a satire, right?  I don’t think I was so sure about where I fell on this one.  On the one hand it’s over the top because it has to be in order to assert itself as meaningful entertaining commentary (and maybe satire) on those days of Wall Street excess.  Jordan Belfort gets caught in the end and we get that he’s not a good person.  But on the other hand this guy (a real life person) is still out there teaching seminars on how to be him.  There was a lot of fun and indignant horror to be had, but it all kind of falls apart when you try to consider what the movie was trying to say.

Leonardo DiCaprio plays Jordan Belfort right on the line of lovable rogue with a dream and irredeemable monster, but I feel that Scorcese’s film did land on Belfort’s side, and that’s partly because all of the globe-trotting parties, the beautiful people, the drugs, and the aggressive workplace environment is shot to get you wrapped up in the excitement.  Every party scene is brimming with bacchanalian self-indulgence, and every scene at the office features Jordan firing up his employees with a speech about being a master of the universe, inevitably sending them into a tent-revival frenzy.  Money is their religion and they are all devoted followers.  It inevitably comes crashing down, and Belfort is left in debt, still addicted to drugs, and with a divorce pending as sort of tent poles of sympathy.  Where the film really seems to take his side is at the end where Jordan tells us that he was worried until he remembered that he is rich and consequences for the rich are not the same as the consequences for ordinary men.  We see a shot of him in his country-club jail, playing tennis and having a fine time rubbing elbows with other wealthy offenders.  Perhaps it is meant as an indictment of our legal system and how it will favor the rich, but up to this point the movie is structured in such a way that rather than speculating on how Belfort will finally get stopped and get what’s coming to him, the audience is meant to be inured to this lifestyle and as a result they are meant to speculate on how their buddy Jordan is gonna get out of this one.

In order for this movie to have better portrayed itself as satire or an indictment of that lifestyle, I feel like it would have to have more closely anchored itself to the emotional toll this lifestyle has on Belfort and his friends and family.  To be fair, the movie does have certain moments where we are meant to look upon these scenes of greed-fueled debauchery with fear and dread (the scene where that one secretary tries to hold it together after getting her head shaved stands out in my mind), but the impact of what we do get is mitigated by all those fun and exciting party and office scenes because the movie prefers them, and as a result the emotional toll on the characters during Belfort’s downfall becomes a sort of Behind The Music decline period checklist.  The Wolf of Wall Street seems less like a satire and more a celebration of this scoundrel life; doing what you want, taking what you want, not caring about the consequences because you’re rich and powerful and charming enough that they don’t even matter.

It’s problematic.  And I haven’t even gotten to how they treat ladies in this one.

The Bling Ring (2013) Sofia Coppola

This one’s about the kids who robbed a bunch of celebrities in Los Angeles back in 2009, and it’s based largely on this Vanity Fair piece by Nancy Jo Sales.  I’ve never been that hot on Sofia Coppola, but I try to give her movies a look because I guess I just want to like her movies despite the fact that I haven’t really enjoyed any of them.  It’s one of those things where I appreciate what she’s trying to do, but it just doesn’t ever seem to resonate with me.

Anyway, this was another one I wasn’t so hot on.  The tone of the movie and the sound of the dialogue was weirdly discordant.  Sofia Coppola’s movies have this sort of quiet, detached feel to them that typically works to contrast the comedic moments, putting a sort of deadpan twist on them, but that trick didn’t seem to do it for me with The Bling Ring, and I think it’s an issue of balance for me.  The tone of the movie is persistently aloof, but the dialogue (most of it direct quotes) comes off as too ridiculous and superficial.  Maybe this is more a problem with the actors’ takes on the dialogue as I thought their line readings seemed to be trying to poke fun at the superficiality of these characters while the tone of the script seems to call for something I think more oblivious than superficial.  I understand superficiality is one of the movie’s concerns, along with the fascinations with the private lives of celebrities, but when the tone and look of the movie so distant and reserved, it can only balance a specific style of humor, one that seems to fit Bill Murray in Lost in Translation better than it does any of the actors in The Bling Ring.

Coppola does some cool things with sound in this movie.  A lot of the sound goes from muffled to too loud, playing on the idea of isolation and interaction, the idea that sometimes dialogue and sounds are too muffled or too loud to mean anything significant to you.  Similarly, that trademark detached visual style of hers makes for some cool looking scenes, particularly one where the group is robbing Audrina Patridge’s house.  The camera keeps the whole house in frame, and we watch the robbery at a distance through floor-to-ceiling glass windows.  There is no sound.  It’s these sorts of quietly compelling moments where Coppola excels, her detachment turning the audience into willful voyeurs, accessories to this crime.

Maybe Sofia Coppola just wasn’t the right fit for this story.  The sparseness of her style certainly has a purposefulness to it, and she definitely had something to say with her film, but at the end of it, the style clashes with the content and objective, making the film as a whole seem uncomfortable with what it is and unsure of what it wants to be.

Argento’s Dracula (2012) Dario Argento

I’m hesitant to scream “Dario Argento’s still got it!” but I was definitely down with this one.  I’ll admit that some of this drags, and I think it was partly because you know how the usual beats of a retelling of Dracula tend to go, but Argento is still excited to show you a bunch of sex and violence, ready to show you he’s still a fucking mad man.  It’s not an entirely faithful adaptation, which is fine because I’m pretty sure Bram Stoker’s original text didn’t include Dracula turning into a giant praying mantis to stab a villager, something I didn’t even know I wanted to see until I saw it.  

There’s this strangeness to how the lighting works in this movie that I think serves the tone of it very well.  Every scene looks over-lit, so the movie looks like it’s being shot in a bunch of little dioramas with a halogen desk lamp shining on all the actors looking like dolls.  It all looks and feels so unnatural and I don’t think it’s just because it was shot for 3D and I was watching it in pitiful 2D.  The actors alternate between wooden and over-the-top (all in probably the worst wigs I’ve seen in a movie), invoking a kind of campy feeling that’s reinforced by how soundstage-y everything looks.  Maybe you can look at it as Argento taking a more Brechtian approach to adapting Dracula, trying to constantly remind you that what you are watching is staged make-believe?  Or maybe Argento wanted to do something with cool effects and not a lot of cash or taste to back it up.  Either way it’s over-lit, over-acted, over-the-top fun.  Oh hey, also Rutger Hauer as Van Helsing was some unexpected casting that I enjoyed.  Maybe there’s some Argento in how Hauer plays Van Helsing?  This vicious old man getting the shit kicked out of him and still prevailing?  It’s probably a reach on my part, but we should all be so lucky.

Spirited Away (2001) Hayao Miyazaki

The only other Miyazaki movie I’d seen before this one was My Neighbor Totoro, and yeah, after that and Spirited Away, I definitely get why everyone loves him so much.  I love that this one’s structured in a fairy tale or fable style, but done in such a way that the usual tropes are almost unrecognizable.  We get familiar things like a dashing prince and an evil witch, but the movie takes our main girl Chihiro through so many different twists and turns that we’re never really sure which archetypes or symbols Miyazaki is really playing on, so as a result it feels like something new and different.  Spirited Away also features a lot of very beautiful animation with these amazing and strange character designs.  It reminded me a bit of The Fifth Element in terms of just going for completely inhuman looking things.  My favorites were the Radish Spirit and the three green heads.

Typical of a fairy tale or fable, Spirited Away uses fantastic situations and allegory to describe a certain change in Chihiro’s outlook and worldview.  She starts out uptight and afraid, and throughout the course of meeting all these crazy characters she learns to overcome that, becoming fearless and free.  One of the things I liked so much about this movie was that all the aforementioned twists and turns in the plot come as Chihiro begins to change.  Chihiro learns something about herself, she changes, and as a result the world around her and the characters she meets change as well.  For instance, Yubaba, the witch who runs the spirit bath house starts out as a totally evil creature, ready to kill and eat Chihiro at the drop of a hat, but by the end of it when Chihiro has reached the end of her arc, Yubaba is something more like a demanding but certainly manageable boss or authority figure.  And I think that’s a great extrapolation of the “Happily Ever After” ending.  We are so frequently told that it’s the end of the movie and everything is fine, but with the end of Spirited Away we don’t need to worry because our girl Chihiro learns that she is able to find strength in herself, ensuring that she will be able to handle anything that comes her way.