Monday, December 12, 2011


Barton Fink (The Coen Brothers, 1991) 64
Barton Fink is a very, very strange movie. It's strange even by Coen Brothers standards, which should mean something if you've ever seen one of their films. It's so strange, and certain events come so abruptly out of left-field, that while I was watching I was absolutely sure the film didn't work. Now, thinking back over it, I am not so convinced. I think it does work, albeit in a very unconventional and not entirely successful way. The film more or less follows the tried-and-true "writer's block" story for its first two thirds; insofar as this takes us, the movie is excellent. The Coens take dead aim at the movie industry and those who populate it: John Turturro is perfect as the tortured, struggling screenwriter, Michael Lerner is gleefully reprehensible as the studio exec, and John Mahoney is uncanny as the alcoholic trainwreck who is obviously supposed to be William Faulkner. It's when the film takes a sudden left turn in its final act that the story threatens to go off the rails. I'm not entirely sure what the Coens are getting at via this resolution, though I'm familiar enough with their output to be sure they did it for a very specific reason. Even so, it's confounding and at odds with everything that's come before it. Despite that flaw, though, it's still an interesting film. Though far from their best work (which was, of course, still yet to come), it's the work of two talented men with an offbeat agenda and an excitingly unusual way of looking at the world.

Battle Royale (Kinji Fukasaku, 2000) 37
A big ol' bloody disappointment. I had really high hopes for this, but I found myself becoming more and more frustrated as those hopes were continually stepped on. From the beginning it certainly feels like it's going to be great, and maybe it could have been, but as soon as the Most Dangerous Game is underway the film slips into a monotonous (and frankly uninvolving) torrent of bloodshed that steadfastly refuses to end. And when it does end, it's murky to an extreme that I find difficult to reconcile with the clean-cut, in-your-face tone of the rest of the film. This is the sort of thing you expect to provide some sort of crushing coup de grace in its final frames. Instead, it takes that left toin at Albuquoikey and opts for a resolution that had me going, "Huh?" I think its problem is that it asks us to become interested in characters who, at least for my money, are never developed enough (I mean, god forbid it take time away from its grenade-wielding decapitated heads in order to actually construct a backstory). So we get unsatisfying snippets that hint at the sort of pathos required for this to work, but it never quite gets there (Kitano in particular needed to be fleshed out a whole lot more; as it is, he's just a creepy bastard, and confusingly so). And I understand that I'm criticizing a film ostensibly about senseless bloodshed for having too much senseless bloodshed, but the blood itself isn't my issue: it's just that I wanted more than that. I wanted a deeper insight into the senseless bloodshed. I liked the Lord of the Flies-esque "inherent savage brutality" theme as far as it took me, but I got the gist pretty quickly; after that, the film just didn't have anything else to offer aside from crotch-stabbing, blood-vomiting, and all sorts of other colorful ways to die. To wit: it's an intriguing idea for a film (even though, yeah, the central concept is a fairly contrived plot device that must be bought into in order for anything to work), well-made, and I can easily see why lots of people love it. I just had too many personal issues that got in the way of, er, enjoyment ... or whatever the proper word is.

Better Luck Tomorrow (Justin Lin, 2003) 78
There's a lot to be said for loving a movie unconditionally, for just unquestioningly accepting it for what it is. I know Better Luck Tomorrow is a very flawed film. Its flaws become more and more apparent to me every time I watch it. But you know what? I don't care. I love it. I think it's a great film. The best I can figure is that it appeals to some sort of unconscious impulse, because it's not usually my position (at all) to just overlook rather noticeable shortcomings. But rather than dwell on what it might not be, I prefer to admire the film for what it is: an affecting, well crafted high school drama that -- despite several plot developments that seriously stretch the bounds of believability -- seems to capture a particular teenage mindset surprisingly well. That's why I like it so much. Not because it's some tough, gritty, realistic teen crime saga, but because it works as a fantasy. It bottles the oft-unspoken desires of a generation of overachievers and plants them onscreen in a way that is watchable, entertaining, and stylish. Need I ask more of it?

The Big Lebowski (The Coen Brothers, 1998) 91
This has become such a cult film that I really don't have much to say about it anymore. Either you're in the camp who think it's self-indulgent and weird for its own sake and find that immensely irritating, or you're in the camp who think it's self-indulgent and weird for its own sake and realize that that's pretty much what's so damn brilliant about it. The movie's just fucking bizarre, almost to the extent that you have to watch it multiple times before you've assured yourself it's safe to laugh at, but each viewing just makes it funnier and funnier. Not the Coens' best (sorry to be a traditionalist, that honor still goes to Fargo), but certainly among their finest work, and one of my favorite comedies ever.

The Big Sleep (Howard Hawks, 1946) 68
Tell me if this doesn't sound like a recipe for success: the biggest movie star of all-time and his wife (Bogart and Bacall) in front of the camera, one of the best directors of the so-called "Hollywood era" (Hawks) behind it, working off a screenplay penned by one of the finest writers who ever lived (Faulkner), which was adapted from a novel by arguably the finest mystery novelist of his time (Chandler). By all accounts, the movie should be tremendous. It's become a huge classic, naturally, but is the movie as great as all that? Well, er, as much as it kills me to say it, not really. Let me explain: the film is notorious for having a convoluted plot. At one point during production, Bogart showed up on-set and asked who was responsible for one of the murders; neither Hawks nor Faulkner knew, so they called up Raymond Chandler, who admitted he had no clue either. In other words, the plot isn't just convoluted, it's damn near impenetrable. You can make sense out of it if you're patient enough and want to, but I can't imagine it'd be a very rewarding quest. So this is a ridiculously confusing film, and despite its many huge strengths, I have a hard time forgiving it for this (especially when so many other 40s noirs actually clear up their twisty plotlines). Still, it's a classic for a reason: Bogart and Bacall are wonderful, and they deliver that oh so deliciously crunchy noir dialogue like they were born with the script in their hands. They're excellent enough to make the whole thing work. Their off-screen chemistry becomes tangible onscreen, and they make for an endlessly beguiling couple. The rest you can throw out. Despite bazillions of characters with unclear motives doing all kinds of crazy things, the film is really all about its two stars. Watch it for them. If you glean anything else from the film, well, good for you. It's a fringe benefit to watching two of the greats doing what they do best.

Big Trouble in Little China (John Carpenter, 1986) 79
We've all seen Big Trouble in Little China, right? So I really don't need to discuss it in any sort of depth (as if such a thing were possible in the first place). It's just ... man, everything about this movie just makes me feel so damn happy to be alive: Kurt Russell's brilliantly awful one-liners and John Wayne impression, the floating eyeball and hairy beast, the neon escalators. It's one of the funnest movies of any kind ever made. I can't even imagine someone not getting into this. It's just so damn enjoyable.

The Birds (Alfred Hitchcock, 1963) 60
Yeah, I know it's considered one of Hitchcock's classics, but especially now that I'm older (I first saw this when I was, like, ten) it just comes across as kind of silly to me. It's well made, as pretty much all of Hitchcock's films are, and there are a couple scenes that really stick with you (the iconic playground sequence, of course, comprises the best few moments in the film), but overall this is just a shadow of what the man was truly capable of producing. Add that to the fact that, unlike lots of people, I'm really not frightened of birds whatsoever, and you have an intriguing if flawed curiosity. Of course everyone should see it once, but it's certainly not among the Master's finest.

Blackmail (Alfred Hitchcock, 1929) 57
Hitchcock's first talkie (and, indeed, the first talkie in Britain) is interesting from a historical setting (both in the way Hitchcock adapts to the changing medium, and in the way he comments on late-20s British society), but isn't quite as captivating plotwise as several of his other early films. The chase scene through the British Museum, for instance, becomes a bit tiresome. Not bad, though; just something that I'm sure the man could have done better.

Blowup (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1966) 55
There's a saying, too clever for its own good, that goes, "If you remember the 60s, you weren't there." Well, I don't remember the 60s either, but I missed being around for them by about 20 years. Still, regardless of whether or not my memory might have escaped me, films like this make me wish I had been there. It just looks like so damn much fun. Really, all Blowup amounts to is two hours of entertaining, but completely ridiculous nonsense. I get the feeling it's a classic not in spite of this, but because of it. Really, there's nothing even bordering on meaningful here. Right as you think a plot is finally about to emerge, the protagonist drops it immediately and instead rolls around on the floor with some anonymous chicks. A random succession of events takes place. Things just happen. By the time the film reaches its final scene, wherein a group of car-crusin' mimes invade a tennis court and pretend to play a game, nothing has been accomplished or resolved or even introduced. Things have just happened. And dammit, I'd be lying if I said it wasn't captivating in its own demented way. It's a total hodgepodge, but it's such a peculiar and trippy hodgepodge that it's hard to actually say anything bad about it. Whatever the point may be, one thing's for sure: it's an Experience, and anyone who's interested should step right up.

Bottle Rocket (Wes Anderson, 1996) 61
All right. I have successfully collected the entire set. Having now seen all of Wes Anderson's movies to date, I can finally make the definitive claim I've been inching towards for ages: I just really don't like the guy all that much. His droll, self-consciously quirky films (the most popular of which are probably Rushmore and The Life Aquatic) seem to really strike a chord with some people, but I just find them smug and irritating. They're never bad, really (with the exception of Rushmore, which I find insufferable), and the judicious helping of (clearly influential) absurdist humor that defines each one is always good for a few laughs, but at the end of the day none of them really add up to much more than pointless excursions into self-aware peculiarity. Bottle Rocket, his first film and possibly his most solid, suffers all the same pitfalls. It tells a story that tries so desperately to be clever and peppers its every scene with so much smirking jokery that I almost wished I could've taken Anderson and Owen Wilson aside and told them, begged them, to just ... relax a bit. Don't try so damn hard to make something "different." The desperation shows, and it impacts what could've been a highly enjoyable, unique little comedy. It is still entertaining, but I also feel like it could have been a lot more than that. That's the feeling I get from all of Anderson's films, really. Maybe one of these days he'll get that feeling, too, and do something about it.

Brazil (Terry Gilliam, 1985) 86
Terry Gilliam is extremely hit-or-miss. For every film of his I love (this, Holy Grail, 12 Monkeys), there's another I actively despise (Fear and Loathing, Brothers Grimm, Tideland). His problem is his habit for overindulgence. Far too often he throws restraint to the wind and lets his work carry him away, often resulting in a jumbled and unpleasant mess. Brazil remains his best work not because it isn't overindulgent (it is -- OH GOD, it is), but because some divine presence manages to make Gilliam's "throw everything at the screen, see what sticks" approach come across as brilliant and visionary instead of merely frustrating. There's so much going on here that it's easy (and in some cases recommendable) to ignore the story and just let the torrent of visuals and crazy ideas wash you away. Still, even the convoluted plot starts to make sense after a few viewings (for instance, I finally got that there's no connection whatsoever between Jill and Tuttle; Lowry just assumes there is, and in acting on this assumption becomes more of a so-called "enemy of the state" than either of them), and the film as a whole never stops being delightful. I can definitely see how this could be considered an acquired taste, and it certainly has the potential to put off people who aren't willing to grant it the patience it demands (which is quite a bit), but nothing's going to change my bottom-line that this is just a fantastic film.

Broken Wings (Nir Bergman, 2002) 63
I think this is one of those films that one has to look at in a certain way in order to appreciate. From a strictly narrative standpoint, it is surprisingly empty: characters talk, a central event occurs, characters talk some more, the central event resolves itself completely independently of any of said talking, movie ends. This doesn't exactly amount to a compelling storyline. So where the film does work is on an emotional plane. There's a good deal of socioeconomic and familial conflict at work here, and while I never got the feeling that the film ever actually solves any of it, I was also keenly aware that -- to use a cliche -- the journey is more important than the destination. Bergman wastes no time throwing his viewers into the lives of this family, and slowly we become involved enough to legitimately care about what happens to them. The film is perhaps a bit too short and the details a bit too underdeveloped to provide the full range of emotion I think Bergman is going for, but nonetheless I finished the film feeling uplifted and satisfied, and that makes Broken Wings something of a small victory.

The Brothers Bloom (Rian Johnson, 2009) 43
A very confused film. It has no clue what it wants to be. Comedy? Drama? Thriller? Mystery? Adventure? Romance? In its indecision it elects to be all of the above, but instead of emerging in the form of some genre-bending brilliance (the sort of thing I'd frankly have expected from the guy who made 2005's excellent 40s noir throwback Brick), it just winds up a confounding and muddled mess. And I hate that it does this to itself, because parts of it -- for instance, the majority of the droll, absurdly humorous bits -- work really well. But then whenever it starts to really get going with something, it pulls another card out of its sleeve and effectively shoots itself in the foot. By the time the film is over (roughly thirty minutes past the point where I thought it was going to end, and likely the place where it should have), it has twisted and turned and conned and crossed and double-crossed and genre-hopped and tone-shifted so many times that you just kind of want it to put itself out of its misery. And so it does, but unsatisfyingly. The Brothers Bloom is the very definition of a sophomore slump: a follow-up to a very successful, clever debut that tries way too hard to outdo its predecessor and ultimately just gets lost in its own pretensions. Rian Johnson is clearly a talented guy. He knows what he's doing. Hopefully by film #3 he'll have gotten his bearings together and will have the right stuff to knock us out again. I'm counting on it, anyway.

Bubba Ho-tep (Don Coscarelli, 2002) 68
I'm serious: if the idea of Elvis and a black JFK battling mummies in a nursing home doesn't strike you as the best thing ever, we can't be friends anymore. Because guess what: it is the best thing ever. This was, I believe, the first movie I ever saw at the Guild (back during its initial release in '02 or '03). I loved it then, and I still have a soft spot for it now. I mean, seriously, though. Bruce Campbell as Elvis. And a black JFK. Battling a mummy. How can you not be cool with that? This should be, like, the most popular movie ever made or something.

Burn After Reading (The Coen Brothers, 2008) 73
Maybe the funniest thing about the Coen Brothers' uniformly hilarious Burn After Reading is how much of a flip-off it is to the world of "serious cinema." After cleaning the floor at the Oscars with No Country for Old Men (which may very well be their best film; it's been a while since I've watched Fargo, the current holder of that title, so I couldn't say for sure), I'm sure everyone expected them to try to one-up themselves with another serious Statement about the human condition in contemporary America. Instead, they gave us this delightfully irreverent political farce that, while obviously not up to the jaw-dropping standards of their best work, is just about as entertaining as one could hope for. The Coens have a knack for creating immensely memorable characters: from The Dude to Carl Showalter to Anton Chigurh, almost every one of their films seems to possess at least one singularly striking individual. Here, the terminally underrated Brad Pitt steals every scene he's in as uber-doofus Chad Feldheimer. It's the rare performance that, no doubt, is as much fun for the audience to watch as it was for the actor to embody. But to be honest, everyone looks like they're having a good time here. I think they realize that this film was never meant to change the world or even really "say" anything (other than the government is incompetent -- gee, what else is new?). It's just meant to be a fun, lighthearted trifle for the Coens as they gear up for another home run. I have no clue how long it'll be until that film hits us, but until then I'm pretty sure Burn After Reading will suit me just fine.

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