Tag Archives: Film

I Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Film School: The Fascination of ‘Sunset Boulevard”s Norma Desmond

Welcome to I Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Film School, my weekly article to prove that I have it in me to go from movie buff to film critic.  With each column I try to better understand the art of filmmaking.  As these are longish discussions, spoilers follow.  For more from me, check out the rest of Defeating Boredom or follow me on Twitter, @Rob_Samuelson.

[Author’s Note: Again like last week, I have to apologize for a short post.  In what may need to be the new normal for this column (I go to a nerd school that requires perhaps too much of my time), this is another class-related essay about Billy Wilder’s 1950 noir-Hollywood takedown classic, Sunset Boulevard.  While William Holden’s Joe is an interesting guy in his own right, he is not the draw of the film.  To find that, one need not look further than his co-star.]

Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) would seemingly like to believe she gave it all up for the movie business.  Whether she had other career prospects is left to our imaginations, but one might assume she had never given second thought about what she wanted in life.  She got what she wanted, then it was gone; she was shuffled to her trophy house as the talkies ushered in a new era.  While she probably realizes deep down that her career is dead, the steady stream of “fan” letters penned by her butler/former husband, Max (Erich von Stroheim) are enough to keep her delusion working.  She’s unbalanced enough — her chimpanzee pet and frequent suicide attempts enhance this notion — to believe her own lies, as it were.  Until Joe Gillis (William Holden) enters her life, she is at least content with the status quo.  His detached, sardonic wit keeps her at arm’s length, but she thinks she’s found everlasting happiness.  Joe’s editing work on her “return” (she hates the word “comeback”) script gives her inflated sense of self the extra push into insanity.  Her deluded reasoning tells her that Cecil B. DeMille (playing himself) wants to make her picture, and her preparations for the role take her from dignified beauty — she’s aged quite gracefully for a 50-year-old woman — into a bug-eyed grotesquerie.  Her beauty treatments leave her with unsightly things stuck on her face at all times, and they seem to undermine their own central idea: To return her to her peak years.  Norma does not see this. In fact, she clings desperately to the idea that she has something (or rather two somethings, with Joe and her rebounding career) to lose.  She’s not about to let them go without a fight; hence the treatments, domineering neediness, and ultimately, murder weapon.


Leave a comment

Filed under Movies

I Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Film School: What Makes ‘The Artist’ Special?

Welcome to I Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Film School, my weekly article to prove that I have it in me to go from movie buff to film critic.  With each column I try to better understand the art of filmmaking.  As these are longish discussions, spoilers follow.  For more from me, check out the rest of Defeating Boredom or follow me on Twitter, @Rob_Samuelson.

[Author’s Note: As will become apparent to you, this week’s post is short enough to be a capsule review.  But thanks to my school’s library closing for Monday’s holiday, I have to spend most of my time there Tuesday evening to do work.  This is a slightly edited version of a piece on the 2011 Best Picture winner, The Artist, I wrote for a class I’m taking.  This may have to become a more regular occurrence on this site when I’m short on time for longer essays.  Sorry in advance.]

What transforms The Artist from a mere genre exercise into a resonant film is its brief use of diagetic sound.  Its utilization of retro techniques — 1.33:1 aspect ratio, long takes, and the “mugging for the camera” common in the silent era — is charming and engaging, but would ultimately result in interesting emptiness without its acknowledgment of itself as a modern (re: talkie) film.  George Valentin’s (Jean Dujardin) nightmare about sound’s implementation in his business is a masterful use of impressionist ideas — dream logic, such as his inability to speak in a world where sound envelopes him —  and practical implementation of sound design.  Up to the point of his nightmare, the only sound in the film is its score; a whimsical, enjoyable score that bores itself in a viewer’s head.  Within the dream, though, George’s powerlessness is enhanced by his dog’s insistent barking, the shock of hearing a drinking glass clink against a table, young actresses on the upswing mockingly laughing at him, and eventually, a floating feather that lands like an atom bomb, waking him from his fitful sleep.  This experience shakes him, and instead of facing the changing film landscape over which he had previously reigned, he becomes obstinate and doubles down on his insistence that talkies will just be a short-lived fad.  His waking nightmare, the one in which he loses everything in a blur fueled by arrogance and the Depression, will continue for several years, before the sobering reality of the necessity of adaptability finally sinks in.

Leave a comment

Filed under Movies

Can’t Wait: ‘Hyde Park on Hudson’

While my other movie series, I Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Film School, looks back, I figured I should place at least one foot in the here and now of giddy anticipation.  Therefore, Can’t Wait focuses on upcoming movies I, well, can’t wait to see, along with a few reasons why.

Bill Murray has had one of the more unique career arcs of any actor from the last four decades.  A stand-up comedian who became a masterful improv artist who became a Saturday Night Live legend who became, along with Eddie Murphy, the biggest comedy star of the eighties, Murray has since departed the big stage for understated independent roles.  He is now the elder statesman/secret weapon of directors like Wes Anderson and Jim Jarmusch; that’s a Madonna-style rebranding.  While Murray’s latest role as former U.S. president Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the upcoming Hyde Park on Hudson keeps him in the indie realm he’s occupied for the last decade-plus, it looks like his most dramatic yet.

Murray’s FDR would, on the surface, appear to be in line with his usual stable of characters, but that assumption would not be quite right.  His recent turns as dour, deadpan men searching for meaning in old age — think Lost in Translation or Broken Flowers — have added a new dimension to him.  In Hyde Park on Hudson, Murray seems to be fun, but not in the same way he was in his eighties heyday.  Gone is the detached, sardonic wit, and in its place is a damaged man who cares about people and life.  For the most part, the film’s trailer carries a light tone, but its implications of British royalty lobbying the U.S. president for help in World War II, along with FDR’s affair with his distant cousin, Margaret (Laura Linney), point to a darker reality the marketing campaign would be loathe to show.  The film probably stays away from the “icky factor” of the affair, but the frankness in its admittance of said infidelity is a rarity among the syrupy, awards-bait films that usually arrive in December, like this will.  A deeper look into the psychology of one of America’s most prominent twentieth century leaders (hopefully) without typical biopic hero worship is indeed something to look forward to.

P.S. There are few things that have brought me as much joy as this video.

Leave a comment

Filed under Movies

Can’t Wait: Ben Affleck’s ‘Argo’

While my other movie series, I Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Film School, looks back, I figured I should place at least one foot in the here and now of giddy anticipation.  Therefore, Can’t Wait focuses on upcoming movies I, well, can’t wait to see, along with a few reasons why.

“Ben Affleck wants to direct?  How cute,” seemingly everyone scoffed in 2007.  After all, Affleck had spent the preceding decade squandering his promise as an actor in toxic works like Daredevil and The Sum of All Fears.  Then he sat behind the camera for Gone Baby Gone and made a vibrant, violent, engrossing, and downright great thriller.  “Okay, but we’ll see how he follows up on that,” came the skeptical response.  Affleck then made The Town, this time starring in addition to his directing duties, and created a crowd-pleasing heist film without sacrificing artistry.  This time, his Argo is not eliciting the same skepticism.

The “based on a true story” hook is captivating in itself, given the high concept idea of faking a Canadian science fiction film as a front for sneaking American hostages out of Iran.  But the cast of iconic character actors — John Goodman, Bryan Cranston, Philip Baker Hall, Victor Garber, Titus Welliver, and Alan Arkin among them — is a cineaste dream.  How these people interact in close quarters, ready to snap at each other and the circumstances surrounding them, is potboiler gold and worth seeing even if Affleck’s direction didn’t look so slick; Argo appears to continue his “artsy popcorn entertainment” aesthetic started in The Town.  Seeing Affleck direct increasingly elaborate films is a good sign for Hollywood, and any Oscar buzz surrounding Argo gives him and other like-minded filmmakers the cache to do special, interesting work.

Leave a comment

Filed under Movies

I Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Film School: On ‘Kagemusha”s Dream Sequence

Welcome to I Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Film School, my weekly article to prove that I have it in me to go from movie buff to film critic.  With each column I try to better understand the art of filmmaking.  As these are longish discussions, spoilers follow.  For more from me, check out the rest of Defeating Boredom or follow me on Twitter, @Rob_Samuelson.

Akira Kurosawa was a filmmaker with an eye toward humanism.  It may have been on an epic scale in most films — Seven Samurai and Ran being the chief examples — but it was for the most part grounded in human interaction.  He leaned on realism not as a crutch but as an extension of a matter-of-fact worldview that included strong, dignified opinions about justice, morality, and how and to whom to assign blame for any number of indiscretions.  With few exceptions — Throne of Blood‘s retelling of William Shakespeare’s Macbeth would be difficult to do without using a form of that play’s paranormal elements — Kurosawa rarely delved into the realm of the abstract.  For most of 1980’s Kagemusha, that remains true, but for one resplendent sequence, he tosses aside the realism and embraces dream logic and imagery to masterful effect.

The character Kagemusha (Tatsuya Nakadai) is a “shadow warrior,” a common man who bears a twin-like resemblance to warlord Shingen Takeda (also played by Nakadai).  For that reason, Shingen’s underlings choose Kagemusha to serve as a double to the lord.  After being mortally wounded in battle, Shingen instructs his men that their enemies should not know of his demise for three years — the time it will take for his grandson to come of age and assume his designated seat on the throne — and Kagemusha must pass for Shingen in that time.  This is a role Kagemusha does not want.  A criminal sentenced to death for a petty theft, he is saved by his lookalike “talent,” but that places him under control of Lord Shingen’s men.  He has no choice in the matter; he will be the stand-in or be crucified.  It is with these stresses that Kurosawa painstakingly creates a nightmare for Kagemusha to endure.

Sleeping fitfully in his chambers, the camera inches toward Kagemusha.  While beautifully shot, the film to this point gives no indication this will be more than a moment hinting at his reservations about his role.  We expect a quick moment showing the trials Kagemusha must endure; his inability to sleep well would be something shown from an outsider’s perspective and easily glossed over in a lesser work.  But a cut to inside Kagemusha’s head brings the audience an experience vastly different from the rest of this film and most films in general.

A large painted jar sits atop what appear to be miniature mountains in an impressionist landscape.  Is this Kagemusha’s fraudulent kingdom?  Japan as a whole?  Kurosawa is not interested in the answers to these questions; rather, he concerns himself, and the scene, with guilt filtered through dream logic.  Intense lighting highlights already bright reds, blues, and yellows.  It’s a harsh beauty; fascinating but ultimately uninviting.  The jar moves.  It jostles and breaks.  From it emerges a fully-armored samurai; it is Shingen.  Kagemusha, dressed in rags, stares in terror as Shingen approaches him with menace and hatred in his eyes.  As the dead man draws closer, his replacement runs in terror.

Why does Shingen chase Kagemusha?  After all, the lord was pleased to have such a capable double.  Surely he cannot be upset, even after having his identity assumed by a less qualified man.  Logically, this makes sense.  To stressed, in-over-his-head Kagemusha, though, Shingen’s spirit must hate him.  He has spent months, years even, being told, despite their obvious similarities, how different he is from the fallen leader.  He and his keepers have had to think on their feet to explain Kagemusha’s different voice — he was “wounded in battle” — and he’s had to steer clear of Shingen’s stable of mistresses so as to not reveal his lack of distinct battle scars.  Shingen’s own young grandson can see through the ruse without being able to articulate it.  “He’s not scary anymore,” the boy says to the nervous laughter of the men in on the deception.

The boy’s remark indicates much of the guilt plaguing the Kagemusha of the dream.  Shingen’s belief in the small person led him to choose the boy as his successor, rather than Shingen’s own son.  With the lord now dead and Kagemusha installed as dignitary, he needs to uphold the image of his role: a wise leader and loving grandfather.  Ironically, he’s better at the latter than Shingen himself; it’s the only thing he does better than the original man.  The boy grows a genuine affection for Kagemusha, who returns it in kind.  This developing love gnaws at Kagemusha.  He’s lying to a person — an impressionable, innocent one at that — about his identity, and how can he convince himself their interactions are anything other than lies?  Furthermore, he’s living Shingen’s life; not the one he had as leader, but rather the one he appeared to cherish, that of caring for his grandson.  To Kagemusha’s mind, Shingen must be jealous of him, which leads Shingen’s furious spirit to chase him relentlessly in the dream world.

The dream convinces Kagemusha, and the audience, of the plan’s inevitable failure.  He may look like Shingen, but he cannot replace the man.  He and Shingen’s men cannot possibly think of every minute detail that shaped the former leader’s personality, his essence, his individuality.  Due to this, Kagemusha’s battle tactics consist of believing questionable parables about Shingen’s ethos; to paraphrase, he was an immovable mountain on the battlefield, willing to wait for the enemy’s mistake rather than attack.  Kagemusha may get lucky with that and other decisions, but he lacks the mind for the position; he’s bound to be exposed in time.  Uninterested in those responsibilities, he’d rather play with his “grandson.”  For all his effort, he cannot be Shingen.  He may be a kinder, more compassionate, more approachable person, but he’s not an exceptional person.  The boy may love him, but that is not enough, because it’s a misplaced love.  In that, he’s failed at his task in the most basic way.  Kagemusha is convinced Shingen’s spirit hates him for this failure.  His guilt over that inadequacy follows him in his everyday relationships.  He’s not what everyone else desperately needs him to be, and therefore not what he wants to be.  In that way, Kurosawa’s humanism shines.  In both his waking and dreaming lives, the chase doesn’t end.  Kagemusha will remain on the run from his own infallibility.

Leave a comment

Filed under Movies

I Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Film School: What Makes a Good Western?

Welcome to I Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Film School, my weekly article to prove that I have it in me to go from movie buff to film critic.  Each week I cover movies I’ve heard feature prominently in film school, films I believe are worth exploring deeply, classics I’m ashamed to have never seen, and occasional new releases if they strike me.  As these are longish discussions, spoilers follow.  For more from me, check out the rest of Defeating Boredom or follow me on Twitter, @Rob_Samuelson.

While its popularity has waned in recent years — replaced first by the musclebound action schlock of Stallone and Schwarzenegger and now by films based on comic book properties — the Western has long served as one of America’s great myths.  Its touchstones are attractive in that uniquely American way: loners, the open air, disregard for authority, sympathy for the underdog, opportunity for wealth redistribution, and violence’s ability to solve problems; watching a Western speaks to our visceral side rather than our need to intellectually analyze.  Its reliance on archetypes instead of well-rounded characters has given us some of our most recognizable and revered film heroes; these generalizations lead us to believe anyone can be the hero rather than shutting us out with a specific, singularly flawed protagonist.  But what elements combine to make a good Western?  What about a great one?  Is it an anti-authoritarian story paired with one of those shallow, archetypal men?  Is it something more?  It was with these questions in mind that caused me to watch three Westerns in recent days.  Two of them, The Searchers and Red River, are lauded classics.  To more fully understand and appreciate what makes those great, though, I watched a comic miscalculation of casting, story, and timing, Texas Rangers.

For the sake of my viewing chronology, I’ll start with The Searchers, John Ford’s classic end of an era film.  Ford’s most frequent protagonist, John Wayne, plays a deeper, more nuanced character than usual, but he remains an archetype: the reluctant hero.  What’s most interesting about this role, though, is Ford keeps the “hero” part in question until the very end.  Throughout the film, which spans several years, Ford leaves the audience wondering whether Wayne’s Ethan Edwards will choose the moral high ground or succumb to his demons.

While those demons — Ethan’s racist, war-scarred psyche — would normally be difficult to overlook from a modern viewpoint, his opinions are not unfounded.  These views have been shaped over years of experience.  Ethan may not appreciate the socio-political things that led to the violence, but he’s been witness to the antagonistic Comanches’ atrocities against white people, including his only family at the movie’s outset.  Wayne does his best work in this.  When he’s angry, which is a large portion of the time, you feel it; there is little of his usual hands-at-his-sides, cue-card-reading rigidity.  His moments of levity and acceptance, such as when he intends to bequeath his entire will to Martin (Jeffrey Hunter), feel natural and earned, given all the time they’ve spent searching for Ethan’s niece and Martin’s adoptive sister, Debbie (Natalie Wood), who had been kidnapped by the Comanches years earlier after they slaughtered her family.

If Ford had left the story at that, The Searchers would be a perfect film; as it stands, it’s near perfect, so the drop-off is not extremely disappointing, but it exists.  The problems lie in the subplot involving Martin’s lifelong romance with Laurie (Vera Miles) and on-again, off-again betrothal.  Their light romantic comedy throws an unwelcome wrench in the overall tone, and its attempt to add comic relief takes far too much time away from the riveting search for Debbie.  Likely the studio didn’t want such a bleak film and Ford was left with no choice but to toss less intriguing elements into the pot.

That said, The Searchers‘ problems are nothing compared to its heights.  Ford’s ability to frame a shot reaches its apex in this.  His outdoor vistas, combined with Technicolor’s heightened reality heyday, are worthy of awe.  His pacing and action scenes are impressive for any time, but especially 1956.  His ability to guide the stiff Wayne through a subtlely shifting performance is magnificent.  Its uncompromising look at brutality — Wayne shooting out the eyes of a dead Comanche so he cannot reach the underworld of his faith, his planning to kill his niece for taking up with the Indians, etc. — paints a picture of social unrest far more intriguing than a Robin Hood tale of protecting the little guy.  But most of all, the film’s greatness is on display whenever Ford can capture Wayne in his element: under an open sky, single-mindedly chasing his goal.

By 2001, the greatness exhibited by Westerns like The Searchers had all but dried up.  It was no longer a popular genre, but instead a collection of half-remembered stereotypes about white and black hats and “circling the wagons.”  Steve Miner, veteran television director, took those stereotypes, tacked on some ’90s teen heartthrobs and white guilt, and made Texas Rangers, a movie memorable only for its laughable overreaching.

There is nothing inherently “cinematic” about Texas Rangers beyond its aspect ratio.  Of its stars, only Rachael Leigh Cook had a reputation as a movie actress.  Everyone else was either the star of a hit teen-skewing TV show (James Van Der Beek on Dawson’s Creek and Ashton Kutcher on That ’70s Show), veteran character actors who hadn’t had much success in then-recent years (Alfred Molina and Tom Skerritt), an “elder statesman” TV star (Dylan McDermott of The Practice), or a non-actor altogether (Usher).  Everything about it reinforces the old — especially now in our post-Sopranos TV golden age — ideas about TV being inferior to film.  Everything is over obvious and overwrought.  Kutcher is Michael Kelso in a cowboy hat; yelling through a goofy grin is his entire range.  Westerns don’t require terrific acting — the best-known actors to don a hat are Wayne and Clint Eastwood, neither of whose “technique” (unrelenting stoicism) would be taught in most acting classes — but being able to hit the simplest of marks would be nice.  Kutcher doesn’t seem to understand that Texas Rangers is nominally a drama.  Van Der Beek fairs slightly better, inasmuch as he can at least look sad when his family is murdered by Molina’s mustache-twirling villain.

The quality of the filmmaking is hardly any better.  The sets and costume design don’t look dirty or lived in like the should for Western towns exposed to the elements, and the cheap lenses and film stock used make everything look an unbearably long episode of Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman.  In one hilarious chase scene, which is supposed to take place at night, what I can only assume to be a lack of funds caused Miner to shoot it on an overcast day and utilize an optical effect that looks like he clicked the spray can in Microsoft Paint to draw black around the racing wagons.

Predictably, the storytelling is equally bad.  Particularly egregious is the subplot featuring Usher trying to earn the respect of his fellow Rangers by proving that black people are humans, too.  It is so heavy-handed that the message, which is obviously a good thing, becomes worse than preachy and instead shines a spotlight on an inexperienced actor out of his element, which, when combined with the equality story line, negates the message.  It shows Usher — a career musician who should stay in that realm where he has real talent — is not up to par with even these second-rate players, which places a bad light on serious black actors and makes them look less qualified than white actors.

While categorically bad, a movie like Texas Rangers highlights what it is about its genre that resonates.  It does this by taking elements that typically work and showing what happens when not done properly.  It features familiar elements: the aging gunman on his way out; the young sidekick eager to take on a larger role; a larger-than-life, scenery chewer of a villain.  Instead of imbuing these characters with personality or twisting them in a new way, the people involved choose to give a warmed-over, “Remember when X happened in Westerns?”  Simply acknowledging that something exists is not a clever use of that thing; Texas Rangers never learns that lesson.  Everything is a twelfth generation VHS copy of things that had been done to perfection decades before by more talented people.

Texas Rangers‘s toxicity only helped emphasize the greatness of Howard Hawks’s 1948 exemplary Western, Red River, starring Wayne and Montgomery Clift in a surrogate father-son relationship.  Much like The Searchers, this opens with an act of aggression from Comanches toward one of Wayne’s loved ones, as they burn every wagon on a train Wayne had moments before left to strike out on his own as a cattle rancher in Texas.  Wayne gets cheap revenge in a wonderful sequence in a river where he stabs a Comanche beneath the water; there’s a hint of extreme violence without explicitly depicting the grisly nature of murder.  This moment sets Wayne on a dark path that turns him into a revenge-seeking monster.

Again, Wayne’s shortcomings as an actor aren’t particularly bothersome, but they do exist.  Early in the film, he can barely be bothered to recite his lines; he is listless, seemingly bored with the material.  Probably unsurprisingly, once his character grows villainous, he engages.  He cares, and the film picks up steam until its thrilling climax.  The film’s midstream change of focus from Wayne’s tenuous, violent grasp on leadership to Clift’s taking the reigns is an act of structural genius; as a commercially minded film, Red River needs the audience to relate to its protagonist, and as Wayne grows less human, Clift replaces him.  It is Clift who takes the archetypal role here: that of the aforementioned young man looking for more responsibility.  But instead of doing what Texas Rangers would do decades later, Red River provides an interesting — and, for 1948, entirely subversive — take on the character, with several scenes brimming with homosexual flirtation and phallic gunplay.  When the film introduces Joanne Dru’s Tess halfway through as a love interest for Clift, it feels tacked on, and you don’t buy the romance as fully as you do the flirtation he has with another ranch hand earlier.  Clift himself doesn’t appear desperate to have her; he abandons her first, and when she catches up to him at the end, he says he “guess[es]” he should marry her.  Not the strongest love story, but an intelligent, engrossing one that rewards close reading.

The only time the film falters is at the very end.  This is disappointing, as it is, until that point, probably in the top three of “proper” Westerns (not counting the spaghetti variety popularized by Italian filmmakers in the 1960s), behind only the first film in this column and Fred Zinnemann’s impeccable High Noon; perhaps it still is, but it’s a step or more below those two.  But after the film spends more than an hour building Wayne as a fearsome, power-mad egoist hellbent on murdering Clift for stealing his cattle, they have a standoff that results in them…  agreeing to reform their cattle raising partnership because they love each other?  The ending is too pat, too convenient, too eager to provide a happy ending that it sucks the importance out of the tension the film had built to that point.  But still, its high points bury the low much like The Searchers would the next decade.

As shown by these films, the American Western relies on archetypes to survive.  What it does with them, though, is key.  They cannot merely exist, as in Texas Rangers.  Something must be done to reshape the meaning of those archetypes.  If they don’t fit the story you want to tell, hammer at them until they are; make them malleable.  The Searchers has as its hero a murderous racist who barely chooses the right thing — family — in the end.  Clift’s homoerotic dealings with his peers in Red River indicate a deeper sense of identity than what entertainment-seeking audiences may realize.  Both these classics infuse their storytelling with dynamism, a singular personality.  Texas Rangers is an exercise in blandness and wannabe filmmaking that does not understand the importance of a leaving a creative stamp on a genre.  In that way, the Western is like any other branch of storytelling: telling a personal tale, when done with proper technique, will reach transcendence.

Leave a comment

Filed under Movies

Can’t Wait: Andrew Dominik’s ‘Killing Them Softly’

While my other movie series, I Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Film School, looks back, I figured I should place at least one foot in the here and now of giddy anticipation.  Therefore, Can’t Wait focuses on upcoming movies I, well, can’t wait to see, along with a few reasons why.

After watching The Godfather for the first time as an adult — I had only seen it at the age of 12 — and The Godfather Part II for the first time, period, in the past week, you could say I’m on a mafia movie kick.  While Coppola’s films rank among the greats, their high-minded take on the upper echelons of mob life is not my favorite of the genre.  As I wrote last week, Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas ranks in my 10 favorite films, and I think that’s because of its focus on the smaller aspects of the life; the two-bits, the less successful ones.

Writer-director Andrew Dominik (Chopper, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford) appears to share Scorsese’s mindset in that regard, as evidenced by the new trailer for his upcoming Killing Them Softly.

Now, doesn’t that feel like one of Elmore Leonard’s lost gems?  Brad Pitt’s scuzzy-goateed, aviator-clad heavy looks to continue his winning streak of distinct, interesting characters (after Inglourious Basterds, The Tree of Life, and his Oscar-nominated turn as Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane in Moneyball), and he deservedly earns top billing.  Pitt’s not the main reason I’m eager to see this, though.  Richard Jenkins is.

Jenkins is a wonderful character actor whose profile has risen the last few years, to the point where he’s nearly reached the Gene Hackman/Robert Duvall level.  The first time I noticed him was as the lovesick buffoon in the Coen brothers’ Burn After Reading, and I haven’t stopped paying attention to him since.  From his tragically doomed Father in Let Me In (a movie that probably had no right to be good, yet still pulled it off), to being the best part of The Rum Diary as Johnny Depp’s cranky newspaperman boss, to his place as the secret weapon (with Bradley Whitford) of 2012’s best film to date, The Cabin in the Woods, Jenkins has earned every ounce of respect heaped on him.  I’m excited to see what he can do in the criminals-bullshitting-each-other milieu.

Oh, and how can you not be excited for that single-take working over of Ray Liotta?  It’s the best form of low-budget filmmaking.

Leave a comment

Filed under Movies

BFI’s Greatest Films of All Time 2012 List Revealed; I Feel Like a Know-Nothing

If you consider yourself a movie buff like I do, you probably make an effort to see the films noted by critics and filmmakers as the best.  In the last few years, I’ve made great strides in expanding my horizons in that regard.  As of my most recent count, I’ve seen 248 of the 1,001 Movies You Must See Before You Die (albeit the now slightly outdated 2005 edition), and I feel like I’m relatively educated on the subject of cinema.

That is, of course, until I saw the British Film Institute released their once-a-decade Top 50 Greatest Films of All Time list yesterday.  Looking at the top 10, I felt I’d done pretty well.  I’ve seen Vertigo, Citizen Kane, La Regle du jeu (The Rules of the Game), 2001: A Space Odyssey, and 8 1/2.  Quibbles about the worth of La Regle aside (Maybe I’m a dumb American for not appreciating it, but I think Robert Altman did a far more interesting version of the rich-people-and-their-servants-stuck-together-in-a-big-house story with Gosford Park — “BLASPHEMY!” I can hear you all yelling at me), I felt pretty good about myself.  Then I read choices 11 through 50.  In total, I’ve seen a meager 16 films on the list, and haven’t even heard of a large portion of the entries.  Once again, I’m humbled, and for the umpteenth time in my life, I feel this is appropriate.

What should you take away from this?  I guess it would be the un-profound, “Don’t be a know-it-all, because you don’t.”

And now, I’m left wondering what my own top 10 would be.  I’m too indecisive to rank them by worth, so it will have to be of the “in no particular order” variety.  This is something that could change by the hour, and some of these don’t necessarily reflect my feelings on the “best” cinema has to offer; rather, they are the ones I most enjoy and can watch multiple times.  Entertainment value plays a huge role.  So, here is my list of favorite movies (Thank you, Josh, for the formatting idea).

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb – dir. Stanley Kubrick.  I could really go with 2001, The Killing, Paths of Glory, or The Shining here, but this one is the funniest, so it makes the cut today.

Boogie Nights – dir. Paul Thomas Anderson.  This is the movie that made me say, “I want to make those.”

Ghostbusters – dir. Ivan Reitman.  It’s both sentimental — when I was a toddler, it served as my babysitter while my mom took care of my little sister — and still really funny.

Raiders of the Lost Ark – dir. Steven Spielberg.  This week, it edges Close Encounters of the Third Kind.  Ask me again next week and it’ll probably be the opposite.

Ran – dir. Akira Kurosawa.  This is the newest addition, as I only saw it a week and a half ago; see what I mean by the evolving nature of this list?

Goodfellas – dir. Martin Scorsese.  Like Kubrick and Spielberg, this could be any number of Scorsese’s films, particularly Taxi Driver and Raging Bull.

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre – dir. John Huston.  Bogart goes unhinged and gets desperate while Huston explores the depths of human greed without neglecting entertainment.

Bronson – dir. Nicolas Winding Refn.  This is my generation’s (improvement on (here come the “BLASPHEMY!” charges again)) A Clockwork Orange and features Tom Hardy’s portrayal of an earthquake of a character.  Perhaps the finest film of the last five years.

Chinatown – dir. Roman Polanski.  A movie without fault.  Its story, characters, and themes create one of the greatest stories ever put to celluloid.

Fargo – dir. Joel and Ethan Coen.  In this, the Coens show a rare affinity for a character — Marge — and play with noir conventions in an Elmore Leonard way.  I watch it every six months or so, which is what helps place it above Miller’s Crossing and Barton Fink on my list.

Leave a comment

Filed under Movies, Music

I Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Film School: Jim Jarmusch’s ‘Stranger Than Paradise’

Welcome to I Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Film School, my weekly article to prove that I have it in me to go from movie buff to film critic.  Each week I’ll cover movies I’ve heard feature prominently in film school, films I believe are worth exploring deeply, classics I’m ashamed to have never seen, and occasional new releases if they strike me.  As these are longish discussions, spoilers follow.  For more from me, check out the rest of Defeating Boredom or follow me on Twitter, @Rob_Samuelson.

The life of a twentysomething — a group to which I belong — is not always a good vibe wonderland.  It’s a time filled with crippling indecision (after swearing off college last May in a fit of frustration, I’m heading into my final year and will earn my four-year degree at the ripe age of 24) and uncertainty.  Oh, and more sitting around doing nothing than any of us would care to admit.  Filmmaker Jim Jarmusch understands this.  He lived it.  Proving the “write what you know” axiom, he made a movie about it with 1984’s Stranger than Paradise.

That’s the funny thing about the movie.  For all the nothing that happens, you stay engaged for the majority of its runtime.  In the film’s opening chapter, these characters, Willie (John Lurie), Eva (Eszter Balint), and Eddie (Richard Edson) don’t know what they want in life, so they don’t do anything.  In that, they reach for some sort of identity, with Willie and Eddie even sharing a uniform dress sense — they look like ska bandleaders trying to be tough guys — and a “profession” in ripping off older men in medium-stakes poker games.  Unsure of how to relate to women, the guys leave Eva, Willie’s visiting cousin from Hungary, alone in Willie’s apartment to her own devices; unsurprisingly, she watches a lot of bad TV.  Eventually fed up with the routine of being left alone, Eva needs to do something and asks to clean Willie’s filthy apartment.  Surprised but not about to pass up a free cleaning service, Willie lets her, and their relationship starts to morph into something less cold; they begin to seem a little more like family.  Before she leaves for her next stop on her American trip, their aunt Lotte’s (Cecilla Stark) house in Cleveland,  Willie even offers a nice, if misguided, gesture to Eva by buying her a hideous dress she discards immediately after she leaves.

The whole movie is filled with small moments like that.  Even the big plan at its center, Willie and Eddie’s “vacation” to visit Eva in Cleveland — and later their trip to Florida — is strung together so episodically you’re left wondering if it will come together.  It doesn’t fully, but that’s the point.  In a life where nothing of note happens, you’re forced to do something, anything to break up the monotony.  If that means going on misguided quests to seedy Florida motels, do it.  Willie, Eddie, and Eva see they need to work to achieve happiness, and although they don’t quite attain it, they give it a shot.  That’s better than sitting around cheap New York apartments being unable to afford anything.

While they may be unhealthy for the characters, those living spaces hold something intriguing for an audience.  It’s in the way Jarmusch presents New York.  His idea of the city isn’t that of other filmmakers.  Nothing happens, there’s no bustle.  Traffic seems nonexistent.  People are scarce, too.  Jarmusch’s New York is a lonely place; it’s not the bursting-at-the-seams metropolis of Sidney Lumet; the neurotic, intellectual stronghold of Woody Allen; or the insular, semi-malicious neighborhood of Martin Scorsese.  Stranger Than Paradise accomplishes this with techniques that would become Jarmusch signatures in films like Down By Law and Mystery Train.  It features the French New Wave-inspired black and white cinematography, point-and-shoot compositions, and side-scrolling tracking shots straight from a Super Mario Bros. game.

The film also begins another Jarmusch obsession, that of the chronically melancholy protagonist.  Sure, Willie is bored and uncertain of what to do with his life, but a lot of that boredom stems from the fact that he cannot reconcile with himself just how boring he is.  He’s an unremarkable person and he can’t deal with it.  When he and Eddie drive to Cleveland, they don’t listen to music.  In fact, they barely speak.  Neither has anything to say, but Eddie makes an effort on occasion.  Willie, though, stays within himself, unable or, more likely, unwilling to engage.  When pushed to experience something new, Eva’s tape of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ “I Put a Spell on You”, Willie shuts it out, putting down Eva’s taste in music, without taking any time to give it a real assessment; we just know he “doesn’t like that music.”  Even his final effort in the film to make his life more meaningful is done under mistaken pretenses.  He isn’t flying to Hungary because he truly thinks it will make things better, he’s doing it because he went to stop Eva from making the same flight; he doesn’t realize she never boarded the plane, and it disembarked before he could get off it.

Willie’s deficiencies as a person reflect those of Lurie’s acting abilities.  He’s not a very good actor, but in this case, he makes his shortcomings work for the material.  He can’t elevate a scene or carry a picture by himself, but Jarmusch does not ask him to do so.  He’s allowed to sit back, smirk, and make snide comments about the things that happen around him; he gets to be a slacker.  If he were the film’s sole focus, it would grow tiresome quickly.

Like Lurie, Balint could probably stand to take some acting classes.  She’s not without her charms, and gives Eva a nice matter-of-factness.  But she zags when she should zig.  In moments where she should be more confused, like when Willie tells her vacuuming the floor is called “choking your alligator,” she just accepts it with a vacant stare and perhaps a hint of suspicion.  I understand blankness is the point of these characters’ existence, but that doesn’t mean everything that happens to them should be greeted with less than a shrug, and that’s how Eva reacts to everything.  She’s rarely curious, and when she is — her late-night TV viewing with Willie is a prime example — she gives up her inquiry when Willie answers with one or two words.  She doesn’t attempt to get him to open up, and makes her character blander in the process.  This is a failing of the writing, as well, but Balint could add more to her character.

Luckily, Edson — who would do great work in Do the Right Thing and, to a lesser extent, Eight Men Out — is there to add levity.  His Eddie is someone who doesn’t mind his station in life the same way Willie does; contentment is easier for him to reach.  He has an easy smile and accommodating nature; he’s the one who suggests Willie listen to the Hawkins song and bring Eva along when they leave the apartment.  He’s appreciative of Aunt Lotte’s willingness to let them stay at her house.  Edson takes a nobody but imbues him with an acceptance that becomes a sort of grace.

Stranger Than Paradise is a meandering film that indicates more potential than achievement for Jarmusch.  He builds on the themes and techniques he uses here to realize that potential in his later films, with my favorites being the aforementioned Down By Law and Broken Flowers.  It has its moments, and its theme of searching for happiness rather than awaiting it is strong, if under-explored.


Filed under Movies

Can’t Wait: David Cronenberg’s ‘Cosmopolis’

While my other movie series, I Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Film School, looks back, I figured I should place at least one foot in the here and now of giddy anticipation.  Therefore, Can’t Wait focuses on upcoming movies I, well, can’t wait to see, along with a few reasons why.

I’m not a huge body horror fan.  Therefore, my exposure to filmmaker David Cronenberg has been limited to The Fly and Videodrome.  I think both are very good, but neither leaves me feeling like I must go on a Cronenberg binge; the intensity of his work calls for long rest between viewings.  So, with it having been months since I saw Videodrome and this new Cosmopolis trailer hitting the internet, I guess now is as good a time as any to see another of his movies.

The first thing that stands out is Robert Pattinson.  For once, his lack of charisma seems to be the point, rather than a further demerit, to the film.  Maybe I’m being a little harsh on him, as I’ve only seen the first Twilight movie, but the impression he gave me in that was indifference and not much talent beyond looking moody.  In Cosmopolis, he appears to be much the same, but now he plays a business type, desensitized to the world around him.

I’m glad to see Cronenberg playing with that desensitization, as cinematically heightened versions of Occupy protesters pound on Pattinson’s limo’s windows while he sits there, insulated and unfeeling.  Associates of some sort suggest Pattinson needs to murder people, as that’s an extension of the business world.  The streets are burning, people are yelling and throwing dead rats while the upper crust like Pattinson and Sarah Gadon talk in detached, inhuman speech patterns to each other in posh restaurants.  Something tells me this will not be a very pro-business film.  Instead, I suspect it will act as an allegory — that’s not a surprise considering its source material, from author Don DeLillo’s novel — for modern indifference.  Our lack of interest in other people is of utmost interest to Cronenberg, and I’m excited to see what he can do with a story like this.

Leave a comment

Filed under Movies