Sunday, November 26, 2006

The 3 Tomatoes Joke, 2nd edition

FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION (2006, Christopher Guest)- aside from a few good bits of schtick (John Michael Higgins' incessant referencing of his "Mighty Choctaw" heritage is pretty great) and memorable performances from Harry Shearer and especially Catherine O'Hara, this is kind of a letdown. For one thing, it's clear that Guest doesn't know much about awards season- there's no mention of precursor awards (such as the Golden Globes) or the critics' awards, both of which might have clued the characters in to whether the Oscar buzz was legit or not. Instead, the Oscars as imagined by FYC take place largely in a vacuum, with no intermediary between the buzz and the nominations. In addition, there are just too many characters here to support a 85 minute film. The core characters- O'Hara's Marilyn Hack, Shearer's Victor Allen Miller, and their castmates- make an impression, but the rest of the company gets lost in the shuffle. Part of the problem is that, outside his favored mockumentary format, Guest really isn't all that good at establishing characters. The talking-heads scenes in GUFFMAN, BEST IN SHOW, and A MIGHTY WIND provide a convenient method for the performers to sketch in their characters' backgrounds, with the added bonus of allowing the film to contrast the way the characters sell themselves to the camera with their behavior in more "candid" moments. But here much of that is lost, and I really felt the difference. Around the time that Ricky Gervais showed up as a smarmy studio exec (a performance that seems to have dropped in from a more scathing satire), I was past trying to care about the people onscreen. The major exception is O'Hara, who as in A MIGHTY WIND is the film's solid center, which makes her transformation to nipped-and-tucked has-been in the film's second half all the more striking. Also, Fred Willard's clueless boor schtick never gets old. Rating: **.

TENACIOUS D IN THE PICK OF DESTINY (2006, Liam Lynch)- if anything, this movie was even more heartbreaking than FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION, in large part because I love the D and was hoping for more from them than a hard-rockin' Cheech and Chong movie. The original D shorts really didn't rely on stoner comedy (Kage and Jables were more generically slacker-ish offstage), but my heart sank when the film announced its intentions right off the bat, with a combination pot/fart joke that spoofs the THX logo. There's still plenty of good D moments to savor- Jack's attempts to join Kyle's band are pretty funny- but after the all-sung opening sequence of the film proper, which finds young Jack rebelling against his Bible-loving dad ("rock is not the devil's work, it's magical and rad!"), played by a crew-cutted Meat Loaf, everything else is a tad anti-climactic. D lovers will savor the returns of Lee and Sasquatch (though where's Captain Ed? Ben Stiller is not an acceptable substitute), but the sad truth is that Liam Lynch is far too amateurish and sophomoric a filmmaker to do justice to the spirit of Tenacious D, a fact that becomes all too apparent around the time around the time he slips in a gratuitous and mostly laugh-free car chase. Maybe these guys just work better in 15-minute intervals... Rating: **.

THE FOUNTAIN (2006, Darren Aronofsky)- if ever there was a contemporary film that was seemingly destined for maudit status, it would be this hypnotically overblown sci-fi epic. Even in its present miniaturized form, Aronofsky's canvas is teeming with grand imagery and Big Ideas, and his ambition and his complete commitment to his material hepls to defuse a lot of the potentially silly stuff (like when Hugh Jackman does tai chi in silhouette in front of a starry background). While Rachel Weisz has little to do besides looking beatific- which admittedly she does quite well- Jackman is nothing short of revelatory here, giving a performance (or three?) that runs the gamut from stalwart to anguished to Zen-like, all with a naked emotionalism that makes me wonder how the comparatively more mannered Brad Pitt could have pulled it off. More than ever it seems to me that Aronofsky yearns to be the great filmic artist of the Xbox generation, combining cutting-edge technology and fantasy influences with a singular sensibility (although this time he forgoes the hip-hop montages in favor of Kubrickian camera dollies and buttery cinematography), and frankly, that's fine with me. THE FOUNTAIN has few antecedents in the cinematic canon- both versions of SOLARIS spring to mind- and in the end I was reminded less of earlier films than to rock'n'roll concept albums of the seventies, which similarly attempted to inject serious artistic and cultural elements into a traditionally disposable medium. To THE FOUNTAIN's credit, it's good enough to be compared to some of the more successful concept albums, providing a cinematic experience which, for better or worse, is unlike anything in theatres right now. Rating: ***.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Hurts so bad, it gets me down, down, down...

R.I.P. Robert Altman.

I've long considered Altman one of my favorites, although as prolific and uneven as he's been there have been a number of clunkers in the mix. But even the least of his works (READY TO WEAR, QUINTET) are pure Altman, and as such hold more interest than most of the movies out there. If the goal of any real artist re-create the world in his image, Altman was truly one of the greats, since there was never mistaking any of his films for the work of anyone else. Though there has been a rash of ensemble dramas on the Hollywood and indie scene in the past decade or so, none has quite measured up to the best of Altman (P.T. Anderson, the master's assistant on his final film, A PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION, has probably come closest).

Out of America's currently-active filmmakers, who has made as many great or near-great works as Altman? Scorsese, perhaps. I'd argue for DePalma as well, but I'd almost surely be in the minority. And unlike Scorsese, Altman never resorted to a "one-for-me-one-for-them" career path. His films, for better or worse, were always his, which was all the more amazing considering the amount of leeway he'd give his actors. More than just the quality of his work or the freshness of his style, it was this maverick sensibility that made Altman a hero of mine.

One essential facet of this sensibility was Altman's insistence on making films for adults. Let's not forget how Altman deliberately inserted a handful of "fucks" into GOSFORD PARK just to keep kids from seeing it. POPEYE notwithstanding, the films of Robert Altman tend to evince a world-weariness that is at odds with the eternal adolescence of most Hollywood releases. It's for this reason that I took some time in warming to Altman's work as a budding filmgoer- I could respect what the guy was doing when I was younger, but it wasn't until I began to identify with, say, the lyrics of Annie Ross' "Prisoner of Life" in SHORT CUTS that I could begin to appreciate Altman's work as I was supposed to.

My favorite Altman? Hate to follow the party line, but NASHVILLE is still the work of his that's closest to my heart. Maybe it's because it was the first of his films to really bowl me over, or because it's the closest the past half-century has come to producing the Great American Film, but much as I love his body of work, NASHVILLE remains on top. But why should one have to choose just one? MCCABE & MRS. MILLER is also in my top 100, and SHORT CUTS and TANNER '88 are flat-out masterpieces as well.

Other Altman titles to grace my yearly lists include: MASH, THE LONG GOODBYE, CALIFORNIA SPLIT, 3 WOMEN, A WEDDING, SECRET HONOR, THE PLAYER, GOSFORD PARK, and THE COMPANY. And even in his second-tier work, there's still plenty to love- the great opening credits sequence in BREWSTER MCCLOUD featuring Margaret Hamilton, the sweet courtship between Paul Dooley and Marta Heflin in A PERFECT COUPLE, the cutting contest in KANSAS CITY, and the sweet sister act of Streep and Tomlin in PRAIRIE HOME, which was proof positive than even near the end, Altman was still in full control of his art.

Today, I'm reminded of an old Hollywood anecdote about another great director's passing. At their colleague and fellow emigré's funeral, Billy Wilder solemnly intoned, "no more Lubitsch." To which William Wyler responded, "worse than that- no more Lubitsch films." I never knew Robert Altman as a man, but I knew his work, and as a result I was about to see the world through his eyes, if only for a few hours at a time.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Casino Royale (2006, Martin Campbell)

I’ve long considered myself a fan of Bond, although when it comes to the more recent 007 movies my fandom is more theoretical than practical- I’ll see them all opening weekend, but none has really done much for me beyond the obvious entertainment value. Thank goodness for CASINO ROYALE, then- a belated straight-faced adaptation of Fleming’s first Bond novel that doesn’t come off as a series-salvaging reboot or, worse, a “prequel” (fuck you very much, George Lucas), but is a great Bond movie that actually manages to be an awesome movie as well. After a chilly black-and-white prologue that proves once and for all that Daniel Craig’s 007 means business in a way that Brosnan never quite did (and a clever opening credits sequence that only lacks a worthy song to match), the first hour of CASINO ROYALE is vintage Bond, setting up the film’s conflict and its villain with flair. In addition, this film brings the welcome return of Bond as a detective on an international scale, jetting from one exotic locale to another not just for variety but to chase down baddies (and clues to their names and whereabouts) for Queen and Country.

But while the film’s first hour supplies most of the pleasures of a good Bond movie- cool cars, pretty scenery, a babelicious woman 007 pumps for information and recreation, everything but Q’s gadgets- the film really gets good once Bond heads for the titular gambling establishment. It’s here we delve into the original Fleming storyline- here switched from baccarat to poker- along the way encountering the greatest Bond girl of all, Vesper Lynd. Amidst all the action and intrigue, it’s Bond’s relationship with Vesper that makes this movie special, in large part because she’s a real three-dimensional character. Which makes Eva Green so right for the role- she’s trousers-tighteningly hot, true, but she’s also a smart cookie, sizing up her male counterpart with her wide, ever-appraising eyes. And Green is matched every step of the way by Craig, as good an actor as has ever donned the tux (though not the fedora- an old-fashioned touch I still miss)- not only is he more of an ass-kicker than Brosnan or Moore, but he actively engages with his costars in a way that no Bond has since Connery. In other words, the pre-release anti-Craig contingent can go straight to hell, because this guy has done the role justice.

What keeps CASINO ROYALE from being one of the greats is the final half-hour. Both Fleming’s original novel and the best of the earlier Bond films had a terseness to them that the storytelling bloat of the film’s final reels sort of betrays. Personally, I thought that the film took about two steps too many to get the story from the awesome torture scene to the perfect final shot, and for a Bond movie, which thrives on momentum, there’s far too much stasis in these scenes. However, the fact of the matter is that even with these issues, CASINO ROYALE is better than any Bond movie since the 1960s because I actually gave a shit about the people onscreen. Unlike Moore’s Cold War-era cartoon, Dalton’s toothless agent, or Brosnan’s quip-heavy action figure, Craig plays Bond as a person, full of complexities and contradictions, one who changes throughout the course of the film, not always for the better, as a result of what he does and what is done to him. And like my favorite entry in the series, 1969’s ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE (and unlike any Bond film since), this one actually gives 007 a woman who is every bit as equal, which makes the story’s final revelations both tragic and inevitable. By the time Craig intones the film’s final, iconic line of dialogue, I for one believed him. Bond… is… back!

Rating: ***.

P.S.: Upon reflection, I've discovered to my mild consternation that for all the love I have for classic 007 adventures I don't own a single Bond movie on DVD. Perhaps this has something to do with the format of MGM's box sets- whereas I'd have no problem picking up an all-Connery (or even better, all-Connery and Lazenby) set, the way it works now, if you want FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE, you've gotta take FOR YOUR EYES ONLY with its creepy-ass Moore/Lynn-Holly Johnson love story. And if I'm paying $90 bucks for five movies, I don't want ballast, I want goodness. I understand the marketing impetus to package the films this way- many fans will gladly shell out just to own their favorites- but is a 007 Connery Classics Collection too much to hope for?

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Borat! (2006, Larry Charles)

For once, the hype is warranted. This movie is really goddamn funny in my opinion. Is there any depth to it otherwise? I'm not sure. I have a sneaking suspicion that a lot of the social relevance ascribed to BORAT by some of its most vehement supporters ("a scathing exposé of American hypocrisy!" et al) may be desperation from critics wishing to justify their glowing reviews of a movie that's this hilariously offensive. Given the way the film was made (turning Sacha Baron Cohen-as-Borat loose in real-life situation and seeing what transpires), the filmmakers doubtless cut out the people who didn't respond as they'd hoped and judiciously edited the subjects they kept for maximum effect. In a way, the film's guerrilla style owes as much to documentarians like Michael Moore, who place themselves center stage in their films and semi-ambush those they encounter, as it does to modern-day performance art comedy video like JACKASS and PUNK'D. But what places BORAT head and shoulders above any of these inspirations is Baron Cohen himself, who between this film and TALLADEGA NIGHTS has proven to be almost certainly the most prodigiously talented of the current crop of big-screen comics. He's the comedic equivalent of the Christian Bale character in THE PRESTIGE- an elusive figure who seemingly devotes all his energy and thought to making us laugh, and who will go to any lengths to do so. His commitment to the Borat character is astonishing, which helps the film immeasurably- if there were any sign of Baron Cohen breaking character, winking at the camera, etc., the whole thing would collapse. Even in strange sequences like a visit to a prayer revival or an already-legendary fight scene that manages to out-do Ken Russell, he's never less than 100% Borat onscreen. His chameleonlike skill and completely original comic style recall the late Peter Sellers, and if Baron Cohen ever manages to find his own Kubrick (an equally eccentric visionary who managed to recontextualize Sellers' genius), watch the hell out. Also, I watched BORAT with a packed house on opening weekend, which was the perfect way to experience it (I'm not sure I've ever heard so much laughter in a movie theatre). I'd love to see it this way again, and I believe I actually may have a chance to, since BORAT is shaping up to be a real phenomenon, and it no doubt won't be going anywhere for a while. Maybe I'll catch some of the jokes I missed the first time due to laughter... Rating: ***1/2.