Friday, May 11, 2007


dir. John Carney

Czechin' out an Irishman.

May 11, 2007 - 35mm

Without a doubt the “nicest” movie to come out this year, John Carney’s sweet little romance, Once, plays nice from start to finish. The movie opens with a street musician (our hero!) frustratingly playing to an audience of one, some drunk guy. This drunken fellow, in turn, snatches our hero’s guitar case and the pocket change that comes with it. The hero makes chase and catches the thief, who amicably hands over the case. The street music saint, then, feeling badly for the sorry sod, hands him some pocket change. What a gentleman. Sigh.

One of last year’s “nicest” movies, The Pursuit of Happyness, found Will Smith’s heroic lead constantly chasing after thieves and dreams. That movie is nice. It has the word “Happy” in the title, but the hero in that movie is not as nice as Once’s hero. He redefines nice. The Pursuit of Happyness is not a bad movie, neither is Once. These movies are gooey, gooey gumdrops, well acted, well shot, cute and teetering on the ledge of obscene narrative contrivance, every once and a while getting a toe or foot wet.

Our nameless hero, played by real life musician Glen Hansard, writes and performs most of the songs in Once, and there are a lot of them. Almost each and every one is bad, and I’m certain we’ll see at least one, if not two nominated for an Academy Award come year’s end. In a pursuit of sappyness, Hansard’s singing falls in the category of other bad bands like Coldplay, Keane and The Dave Matthews Band. Whatever strength or weakness the lyrics may have become irrelevant as the singer starts groaning and hollering gibberish with a pained look of exasperation that translates:

“Oh man, I’m so sad and frustrated, grrrrr... I could snap at any second… but my voice is getting high, because I’m nice… I’m so nice… baby, I’m sad… I’m not growling like this because I’m a mean guy… I’m a good guy… but I’m dark… and angry… but I love you… what a mystery I am… so tortured… what love have I lost… nice.”

Even though the music is bad, it does not affect the believability of the characters' satisfaction with the tunes. It’s easy to believe these characters love these songs. They’re so nice.

Once looks a lot better than it sounds. It’s a homemade movie, seemingly shot guerilla-style, with handheld long-takes that settle into the oft-exchanged gazes of the potential lovers, hero and heroine. Marketa Irglova plays the nameless heroine, and her songs are better, a lot better, than Mr. Hansard’s. It’s a pity we get so few of those. They make an exceptionally handsome couple, their chemistry oozing off the screen. There is flirting nearly the entire movie, the pair relishing every moment their deep gaze is matched by some brief physical connection, be it a piggyback ride or touch on the shoulder. The flirty excess plays similarly to the atmospheric brilliance of Before Sunset. Where Sunset shines is the deconstruction of the two no-longer-young leads, exposing them as often hypocritical, mean and petty, and yet the chemistry and romance is extraordinarily palatable. Once opts strongly against any character flaw whatsoever with the leads or peripheral characters, though I find one. They’re too nice.

The niceness leads to a surprisingly satisfying ending that is decidedly not simple or stupid. For all of the niceties in the movie, remember, “nice” is not always bad, that’s why it’s called “nice.” Nice meaning admirably small, taut, short, sweet, silly, a little daft and sometimes boring.

And now, for a boring song from the movie:

Saturday, May 5, 2007

Murder by Decree

dir. Bob Clark

Observing a sad loss.

May 4th, 2007 - DVD

Bob Clark’s recent death has brought a lot of well-deserved attention to a few of his excellent and neglected works, particularly his cool and gritty early horror breakthroughs (Deathdream, Dead of Night, The Night Andy Came Home, The Veteran, Whispers, etc.). For some reason, though, surprisingly few of these “and he was good, too!” obituary articles even mention Murder by Decree, which to me is arguably his greatest accomplishment. A model of effective, efficient, and quietly resonant storytelling, this is one of my own favorite mystery films, a slightly twisted Sherlock Holmes/Jack the Ripper hybrid that combines intelligence, wit, chills and—most unexpectedly—a little heartbreak. It’s a movie with the rare ability to unspool a plot that feels at once meticulous and haphazard (in all the best ways), and by the finish it has even earned the right to reduce Sherlock to tears—twice!

The film opens with an incredibly good scene. Holmes (Christopher Plummer) and Watson (James Mason) are at the opera, and everyone is awaiting the Prince’s arrival. When he shows up, he’s received with a mix of polite applause (from the wealthy patrons seated on the floor) and jeers (from the upper galley cheap seats). This goes on for a few moments, until Watson—appalled by the lack of respect—bellows out “God save his royal highness!” from his seat in one of the side balconies. This instigates thunderous applause from most of the audience. Holmes turns to Watson, proud and surprised, and says, “good show old fellow.” This should be the fuckin’ primer on how to open a movie. We get so much out of this seemingly tangential introduction; the turmoil in England that serves as the background for the entire Ripper mythology, Holmes and Watson’s place situated between the poor and the wealthy, and—most charmingly—a representation of the sincere and deep friendship between the two partners.

This “relationship” element is one of the film’s strongest attributes; here, probably more than in any other Holmes film, we get a realistic understanding of the Holmes/Watson dynamic. Holmes was content to observe and critique the cultural melee at the opera, while Watson felt emotionally moved to do something about it. Watson needs Holmes' intelligence to right criminal wrongs, and Holmes needs Watson as his kind of emotional-everyman compass. Furthermore, not a film willing to relax into easy character patterns, some of the best sequences in Murder by Decree occur when the two characters adopt the skills of their counterparts; Watson takes on some of the detective work himself, for example, or (especially) the scenes in which Holmes becomes deeply invested in the humanity of the case.

Clark is good at getting great performances from the excellent cast (which includes Donald Sutherland in his haunted, long-stare mode) but he's even more of an asset when it comes to visualizing this particular world and story. The sets, despite often feeling like sets, are beautiful and misty, and there is a sincerely disturbing sequence where Holmes visits an insane asylum. Clark even sparsely applies some of his signature shots in unexpected and effective ways. He all-but pioneered the modern usage of “killer’s POV” in Black Christmas (and would later rip it off as “peeper’s POV” in Porky’s), and his occasional use of it here—just a year after the technique blew the horror world’s mind in Halloween—is inspired and startling even today. The first kill in the film is as sleazy and disturbing as anything in Black Christmas, and it sets the whole movie on edge. In other Holmes films, we assume people have been murdered, sure, but by brutally depicting the deaths Clark raises the stakes for the great detective. Holmes tries to remain
impassive, but eventually the severity of the crimes sneaks in under his skin, and when he finds out who’s responsible… well… he gives John Gielgud a fat piece of his mind, let me tell you! It’s a great scene, as are nearly all the scenes in this subtle and expert film.

Murder by Decree puts modern mysteries to shame. The investigative thriller genre has been hit hard in recent years, to the point that it’s nearly dead as a dependable entertainment. TV bullshit like C.S.I. and Law and Order have turned the “mystery” into a kind of crank toy, where “get this to the lab” is the new “elementary, my dear Watson” (which, it’s important to note, is a line that goes unspoken in all of this film-- such is the filmmakers' reverence for the characters). Maybe the reason Holmes has remained so enduring as a character is because he’s completely removed from stupid technology, like UV lights and DNA testing. How fuckin' boring is that? In 1978, when Bob Clark was at the top of his game, he knew that in order to make a truly modern investigative thriller he couldn’t easily rely on his own era. Instead, he took his style and intelligence back to the roots of the genre, and delivered one of the best mysteries I know of.

Bob Clark, you'll be very fondly missed and remembered. And not just like this.

Spider-Man 3: The IMAX Experience

dir. Sam Raimi

James Franco and Neve Campbell in Robert Altman's The Company.
Kyle MacLachlan in Paul Verhoeven's Showgirls. Tobey Maguire in Sam Raimi's Spider-Man 3.

May 4, 2007 - 70mm/AMC Lincoln Square

My favorite scene in Robert Altman’s The Company is when a shirt-less (hot!) James Franco prepares an egg breakfast for Neve Campbell. This occurs in the morning, after what we can only assume was a night of passionate chef/ballerina-style lovemaking. The egg preparing is surprisingly very intimate, more so than a sex scene would have been, but more than intimate it is hilarious. He smiles that goofy million-dollar smile and all is right with the world. And, on top of the smiling, he’s a good cook! He’s making eggs! What a catch! Way to go, ballerina Neve!

My favorite scene in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 3 is when a fully clothed (hot!) James Franco prepares an egg brunch/dinner/snack for Kirsten Dunst. This occurs in the middle of the day, after and during dancing rather poorly to “The Twist”. The Spider-Man movies are full of musical montages, but this is hardly a montage. Mr. Raimi opts to treat this small, intimate scene with the frenetic “so much is happening and time is passing!” styling of a “‘love is in the air’ montage” by bringing archaic music, wild and crazy dancing and, most importantly, Mr. Franco’s priceless smile. A great chunk of this movie, when Mr. Smile loses his marbles, is very amusing. It all culminates in a scene with Tobey Maguire (Spider-Man/Peter Parker) and Mr. Franco (New Goblin/Harry Osborn) in a coffee shop.

The coffee shop scene is a serious one, but it ends comically with the young Osborn essentially commenting on the “damn good slice of pie” to his waitress. Mr. Franco’s insistence on the quality of the slice of pie echoes the work of Kyle MacLachlan in David Lynch’s television show, Twin Peaks. This unhappy coffee shop meet between Parker and Osborn, in conjunction with some alien goo, leads to another series of over-the-top slapstick silliness. This time, Mr. Maguire plays the part of the wild and crazy guy, which leads us back to Kyle MacLachlan. As the alien goo and his newly acquired “single” status take hold, Peter Parker becomes a charming sleaze-ball. This sleaziness physically manifests itself in an altered hairstyle. The “sleazy-spidey” hairstyle happens to be another echo in the Kyle Maclachlan canon, reflecting his hair in Paul Verhoeven’s movie, Showgirls. In Showgirls, Mr. Maclachlan’s “sleaze” is represented through staring at girls, a lot of cocaine use and weird, body-flopping pool sex. In Spider-Man 3, Mr. Maguire’s “sleaze” is represented through staring at girls, a lot of cookie-eating and weird, body-flopping jazz club dancing.

Peter Parker dances at a jazz club with some new girl, Gwen Stacy (played by Bryce Dallas Howard), to get back at his recently fired ex and ex-Showgirl (Broadway, not Vegas), Mary Jane Watson (played by Kirsten Dunst). Ms. Dunst does quite a bit of singing in Spider-Man 3, and all of it is very poor. Can any of the women in the Spider-Man universe do anything right or be the least bit independent or strong? Unlike the dancing in the movie, the singing is not funny. Not funny at all.

Almost none of Spider-Man 3 makes any sense, not in the classical sense of the word and not in the fantasy universe created in first two (successful) installments in the series. There is a sand-monster who can grow to exponential heights, a cross between the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man from Ghostbusters and Nick Nolte’s “water-father” monster from the end of Hulk. There is an old advice-giving manservant at the Osborn mansion that bequeaths pivotal knowledge to Harry at just the right narrative moment. There is an inexplicable vibrating desk. All of these oddball non-sequiturs, compounded with an overly complicated, yet very simple and stupid, story make for something that, if anything, is good for a few laughs. I have no intentions of elevating the first two Spider-Man movies to the levels of the to-be-mentioned series, but Spider-Man 3 fits snuggly in the Batman Forever or Return of the Jedi category of moviemaking. It has the totally bonkers nonsense feel of Batman Forever, combined with the performative (none of the actors care) feel of Return of the Jedi.

Spider-Man 3 is a bad movie.

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

No Country for Old Men

No Country for Old Men
dir. Joel and Ethan Coen

Hair + Can = Movie Magic

April 30, 2007 - 35mm/AMC Lincoln Square

Josh Brolin plays Llewlyn Moss. One day, on a rather unsuccessful hunt in the pristine wild of West Texas, Llewlyn happens upon the aftermath of a botched heroin deal. Bloodied, rotting bodies of both men and dogs have been shot full of holes. It’s a mess, but it is beautiful. The site is brimming with a history of the not too distant past. The loud gunfight lives on only in this painting, a still sculpture of bloodshed. Llewlyn methodically observes the carnage as though wandering through a museum or diorama. Every bit of motion on the hush landscape is startling. Following a trail of blood, which may as well have been gingerbread, he finds the body of a man who almost got away, and with him, a satchel full of cash. How much cash? Who cares. A lot. The concern is not how much cash is in the satchel, but whom the money now belongs to. Finders keepers. Llewlyn Moss takes the money. There’s no turning back, and the wonderful thing about No Country for Old Men is, Llewlyn Moss doesn’t turn back. He takes things as the come. It’s not fate. It’s more complicated than fate. It’s survival.

For every hero (Llewlyn Moss), there’s an equally capable villain (Anton Chigurh). Chigurh is a movie baddie for the history books. Javier Bardem embodies his charms, looks and creative murderous zeal with expert precision. He wields a can of super-compressed air (the sort used on the kill-floor of the slaughterhouse) and turns it on humanity. It is a quiet way to take a life, and the nonchalance with which Chigurh executes his victims is matched by how death and violence is portrayed in the movie. There is a startling, magnificent degree of matter-of-factness to the entire thing. There is little to no screaming in No Country for Old Men and practically no music in aid of tension or action. The violence is allowed to exist. Death is enough. Death, as a matter-of-fact, is serious. It speaks for itself, though it would be a mistake to call this “hands-off” moviemaking, as the deliberately paced action sequences are gasp-worthy because of the stillness and silence contained within the expertly designed landscape, both physical and emotional.

The carnage and straight-laced in-the-moment chaos of the Llewlyn/Chigurh young man’s hunt is juxtaposed with Sheriff Ed Tom Bell’s tempered reflections on life’s past. No Country for Old Men takes place in 1980, but more importantly it is set in the present tense. The present is a difficult place for Ed Tom to be. Played by Tommy Lee Jones, Ed Tom is an old man, and suffice it to say, this is no country for him. Whilst providing the greatest amount of comic relief in his dealings with the young deputy (chameleon Garret Dillahunt), Ed Tom also carries the brunt of the burden all of life and death on his sad shoulders. His hefty words bookend this tale nearly devoid of foreshadowing, catharsis and climax.

No Country for Old Men is a marvelous movie, steadily surprising and thrilling both emotionally and intellectually, with performances, wit, set pieces and visuals that are a glory to behold. Every location is lived in. Every hotel room needs a dusting. Every home seemingly decorated by its occupants. The astounding and ravishing Scottish actress, Kelly Macdonald, plays Llewlyn’s wife and not for a moment can you consider her not a West Texas native. Writer/Directors Joel and Ethan Coen have successfully captured the spirit of the present, forever moment (as provided by Cormac McCarthy) in both personality and texture, fashioning an eternal motion picture classic.

Moviemakers and storytellers have been deconstructing the mythos of the “Old West” for generations. There is timelessness and urgency in this exploration, worthy not only of the brain, but also of the soul and to the very essence of being natural people of this country and of this earth.