Sunday, December 11, 2011


Made in U.S.A. (Jean-Luc Godard, 1966) 34
Again, I want to say I didn't "get it." That I'm just not smart enough to fully understand Godard's self-consciously quirky "artsiness." But you know what? Even if I did, I can't help but feel that Made in U.S.A. would still come across as a giant piece of crap. Sure, Godard can -- and, for the most part, does -- do anything he wants: whether it be giving his characters absurd names like Robert McNamara and Richard Nixon, setting his action in Atlantic City despite everything being in French, or just plain miring his audience down a self-described "murky case" that makes no sense whatsoever. What he forgets is that none of these necessarily make for interesting cinema. Despite some amusing moments here and there, I mostly found Made in U.S.A. tedious. Its mercifully short 85 minute runtime at points seemed torturously long (especially during the extended stretches where the film consisted of nothing but an abrasive tape recording of a political manifesto). But whatever. Maybe the film will find a loyal fanbase. For the first time in 43 years, this is finally getting a U.S. distribution. Normally I would be incensed at the injustice of this, but this is an exception. I can give you one solid reason why Made in U.S.A. should have stayed in France: it sucks.

Magnolia (Paul Thomas Anderson, 1999) 63
Way back in the day (this must've been 2002 or early 2003, because I don't think I was even in high school yet), before I had seen many movies and was still young and impressionable, I saw Magnolia and pretty much thought it was the best thing ever. Oooohwow a super long movie with a crazy amount of characters and like seventeen intersecting storylines? The thing's gotta be a masterpiece. So it went. And now, older and more jaded, I sat down to watch it for a second time to see if it still holds up. Does it? Well, kinda. While by no means a bad film, it's definitely not the end-all cinematic miracle I seemed to think it was. For one thing, the length and scope of the deal masks the fact that each individual story is utterly flat. By putting them together, there is a sort of sweeping catharsis; separately, none of the stupid things really go anywhere. Also, paradoxically, the thing's too long. 188 minutes is a crazy epic length for any film, and unless you're Kurosawa or Coppola or something, that's just too long. By the end, the thing really starts to feel drawn-out. Still, it's one hell of an ambitious movie and it's hard not to give it credit for that. Anderson was only in his late 20s when he made the thing, and I'll be damned if I'm responsible for anything so impressive by the time I turn 30. Especially something with such a ballsy final act. Seriously, it rains frogs.

Man Bites Dog (Remy Belvaux/Andre Bonzel/Benoit Poelvoorde, 1992) 60
Here is a perfect example of why a film should not feel it is necessary to conform to a certain length: at around 60 minutes, Man Bites Dog would have been a brilliant achievement; at around 90, it loses its film grip and begins to grow tiresome. The central idea is an ingenious one: filmed in black and white on handheld cameras, it's a mockumentary of a film crew following the perfect subject: a serial killer. He is charming, charismatic, funny, and also extremely dangerous. The film strikes a brilliant chord in its first act by juxtaposing calm, collected scenes of pitch-black gallows humor with acts of shocking violence. As the crew continues to follow him around, they find themselves becoming more and more involved in his ghastly crimes until they ultimately become his effective henchmen. Like I said, this works amazingly for about an hour: there's one tremendous scene after another (the suburban house sequence is particularly potent), and it feels like the film is winding up for a knockout punch. Unfortunately, the filmmakers don't have an especially strong sense of how to end this, and the film's last third becomes a series of dead-ends that almost threaten to undo the whole affair (are the hospital or jail scenes necessary at all?). Still, shooting yourself in the foot doesn't mean the bullet was always there, and one still walks away from Man Bites Dog with a handful of compelling material. While I do feel that Michael Haneke does the whole media/audience-desensitized-to-violence thing much more effectively with Funny Games, these guys have still come up with a compelling prototype. With a few kinks ironed out, I know I'd be in love with it; as it is, it gets some strong admiration without fully getting a vote of confidence. That's just the way of these things sometimes.

The Man Who Wasn't There (The Coen Brothers, 2001) 66
In which the Coen Brothers, whom I am convinced could successfully write and direct any genre of film, make the closest thing to straight-up 40s film noir that modern cinema has ever seen. Seriously, they've got this down to a science: the black-and-white cinematography, the atmosphere, the shadows, the dialogue; it's really something. In fact, it'd be just about perfect if the story didn't completely self-destruct by the end. For the first hour, the film feels like it's going to be incredible; Billy Bob Thornton is creepy, and the tension keeps getting built up quite skillfully. And then something happens. I don't know what. But the train derails, and it threatens to take the entire film with it. Luckily, a fair portion manages to stay on track and the film emerges overall as a strange but enjoyable anomaly. Few filmmakers would take it upon themselves to even make an homage to classic noir, much less construct a life-size replica of it. It just goes to show what the Coens are both capable of and willing to do. Predictably, it tanked at the box office. Oh well.

Moon (Duncan Jones, 2009) 70
Moon is not great science fiction, but it is a solid and entertaining piece of cinema. I think the reason why many have been led to call it great sci-fi is just the simple fact that films like this are very hard to come by these days. This isn't your standard-issue kinetic, things-blow-up-in-space action thriller. It's a character piece through and through, sometimes slow moving, but never dull for an instant. Comparisons to a certain Stanley Kubrick film are inevitable, but the similarities are only surface-level. As a film, this can proudly stand on its own, and that alone should be reason enough to see it. To discuss plot points would be to divulge spoilers, which of course it would be criminal for me to do, but suffice it to say that while Moon does not break any new ground conceptually, it deftly handles what it brings to the table. The clean, simple, well thought-out execution is refreshing. Also impressive, and indeed what likely makes the movie more than anything else, is Sam Rockwell's bravura performance. The man is dynamite here. It's a role that could easily lead to scenery chewing, but he handles his one-man show with a great deal of skill. His acting never calls attention to itself, and the overall effect of his work is extremely impressive. Still, I felt that something fundamental was missing; something that kept it from becoming the sci-fi classic that by all means it deserves to be. But that's nitpicking, really. It's a very good film, admirably ambitious, and I'm just glad it found its way to us.

Mysterious Skin (Gregg Araki, 2004) 91
In a market saturated with formula vehicles and cookie-cutter retreads, I appreciate a film that is willing to take risks. Mysterious Skin is a film that takes a handful of really big ones and, for the most part, succeeds with every last one of them. It is an unflinching look at an extremely difficult subject; it does not candy-coat anything and it refuses to shy away from even the most troubling details (neither of which it should do; subtlety is not the way to handle this sort of material). And while unbelievably devastating, one cannot accuse it of being emotionally manipulative. It delivers its soul-shattering gut-punch not because the director has stacked the cards in favor of its incredibly powerful final scene, but because the story is so naturally trenchant and yet so honestly handled that it just ends up there. It earns that final scene. And if that isn't reason enough why this is a tremendous piece of work, here's another: Joseph Gordon-Levitt (still best known for "Third Rock from the Sun," despite having been in some really great films since then) gives a beyond-excellent performance as Neil, the film's protagonist. On the surface he comes across as nothing less than a heartless asshole, but Gordon-Levitt nails the nuances of the character so well that it's impossible to miss the deep-rooted suffering behind his hardened facade. It's wonderful work. But really, I want to shake hands with everyone involved in this. It's by no means an easy film, but it's a necessary and important one. It explores areas of the human condition that few would ever dare to touch. That it does so with such honesty and such overwhelming force makes it one of the finer cinematic achievements of recent years. (I suppose I do see the unfairness of simply describing it as "a film about child abuse," as I did with the movie night crowd, as it does go a hell of a lot deeper -- and darker -- than that. But my question to those folks would be, now that you've seen it, wouldn't you be disappointed if it hadn't? I know I would.)

No Country for Old Men (The Coen Brothers, 2007) 90
I think I exhausted pretty much everything I have to say about this back when it came out a couple years ago (god, has it already been that long?), but it's still an exceptional film that holds up very, very well. It's unconventional as hell, too: how many movies can you think of that basically feature no soundtrack whatsoever and have three main characters that never meet any of the others face-to-face? I'd be hard-pressed to name even one more, for both. Anyway, this sucker cleaned up at the Oscars, and deservedly so. Bardem's chilling performance is on its way to becoming iconic, and the film as a whole can proudly stand as far and away the best western of the 2000s.

O (Tim Blake Nelson, 2001) 63
A competent, if not particularly outstanding, contemporary adaptation of Othello (which, to be honest, was never my favorite Shakespeare anyway). For all its flashy modern embellishments, it's actually pretty faithful to its source material. As with all Shakespeare adaptations, this is both a strong point and an undoing. On the one hand, you know you're going to get a solid story; on the other, especially if you're familiar with the play, there are no surprises. Aside from the high school basketball conceit, O doesn't go out of its way to do anything new or different with the Bard's plotline. As a result, as soon as the setting is established, the film feels like it goes on autopilot. Still, the performances are good (the core three especially; even the normally wooden Josh Hartnett stands out here) and one has to give Tim Blake Nelson kudos for trying. It's just that, especially with the potential inherent in each and every one of Shakespeare's "major" plays for a brilliant adaptation, it's hard to not want a little bit more out of it.

Oldboy (Chan-Wook Park, 2005) 87
The first time I watched Oldboy was in context with the rest of Chan-Wook Park's "vengeance trilogy" (of which this is the finest entry by a long shot), which necessarily means that a lot of thematic and tonal similarities between the films were going to be taken for granted. A few weeks ago, upon rewatching this in isolation from its counterparts, it finally dawned on me just how grim this film truly is. In a viewing marathon filled to the brim with blood and revenge and mean-spirited violence, the impact of these sorts of things -- for better or for worse -- ends up going by the wayside. And while my first viewing of the film at the end of last semester certainly knocked the wind out of me, it was only this time that I was able to fully appreciate the twisted humanity it puts on display. And it's just twisted enough that I could easily imagine lots of people getting seriously turned off. But where the film might lose some people is exactly where I latch on. As with Mysterious Skin, I have a certain natural fondness for films that step outside of a well-defined comfort zone and tap into dark, almost unspeakable recesses of the human mind. The plot developments in Oldboy very quickly drift away from the expected "hard-edged badass" (of which there is plenty, of course, although most of it is in the film's first half) into much more unexpected, disturbing territory. But that's what makes this so special and keeps it from becoming "just another revenge flick" (that and the fact that it's a technical tour de force, but that's a topic for another day). The motivation, no matter how sick and depraved, has an unnerving verisimilitude; sometimes, in the real world, having a villian who's just a crazy, fucked-up son of a bitch is adequate enough for this kind of shit to go down. It's a trying film, to be sure, but never at the expense of entertainment or pathos. It takes you to dark places and shows you unpleasant things, but it's not so unkind as to deny you payback for your emotional investment. Again: this is excellent.

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