Saturday, December 4, 2010

a little late, but RIP Leslie Nielsen

Words cannot really express what Leslie Nielsen meant to my childhood, the hours watching the Naked Gun movies (and, eventually, Airplane!, and even some of the lesser but still amusing movies like Spy Hard and Wrongfully Accused).  It's one of those comedy movie memories I have like with Mel Brooks that is one of the ones attached with my father.  On a personal note, these were some of the movies that I could watch with him, repeatedly, and quote and reminisce about.  When a movie can bring people together like that, it's an amazing thing, especially when it's with someone who isn't as nuts into movies as I am.  So, that's something that will be missed but remembered fondly.

But hey, Nielsen wasn't just a comedy guy.  It's ironic that my generation will remember the too-often quoted "Don't call me Shirley" bit from Airplane - or, again, his many many many MANY hilarious bits from the Naked Gun series (seriously, ALL of the are brilliant) - as he started out and was for many years a serious actor.  So serious that one almost can't believe he was so straight-forward fantastic in movies like Forbidden Planet, Creepshow, Day of the Animals, Prom Night (yes, the original), and the Poseidon Adventure.  In many ways, across the spectrum of genres and good and bad taste, he was a treasure.

But hey again, enough of this, why not let his career speak for itself:

(can you tell I like me some Naked Gun?)

He can hold his breath for a long time...


Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Tangled & Faster

Ah, classic-style Disney animated movies, or in this case revamped classic Disney, where have you been?  This is a much-rhetorical question as indeed the real return of the "official" animated Disney movie line-up not counting certain 'other' movies like sequels or random things like Doug's 1st Movie or, of course, Pixar) really came back last year with The Princess and the Frog.  This isn't entirely to discount some of the other movies from the past few years, but until last year- under the guidance of new head-honcho John Lasseter and featuring the directors of classic fare like Aladdin and The Little Mermaid- Disney's official line-up looked lost.  It was a good start, and Tangled is an ever better next-step forward.  It doesn't try to pretend what it should be, conventional family entertainment for "all-ages" (as it might be said, albeit here the rating strangely is PG, maybe for a scene of brief violence), but it does give it some extra 'umph' in comedy and attitude.

In story it's got the basics of the straightforward fairy-tale (though with the changed name, so, y'know, as the marketing guys put it, so boys would go... yeah): it's the Rapunzel story, where a little baby with awesomely-magic hair (created by a flower that has such powers to make rejuvenation possible) is stolen by a youth-hungry woman Mother Gothel and taken up to the large tower where she is locked away (if only in 'word').  Cut ahead to 17 years later and hungry-to-go-outside Rapunzel is about to turn 18.  Mother Gothel is insistent in her "subtle" way that she can never leave, of course never revealing anything of her true intentions.  But then, wait, what about the 'fair prince?'  Not here - this time there's a bandit named Flynn Rider (nay Eugene Fitzherbert), who comes up to the tower by sorta-happy accident, surprises the hell out of Rapunzel, but offers the prospect she's been waiting for: to see the lighting of the lanterns in the village.

It's Disney, so there are the stock characters.  There's the plucky-super-CUTE sidekick in the form here of a chameleon.  There's the sorta not-good-but-not-bad side characters (the characters at the pub, who, I should note, give the most memorable song in the movie with "I've Got a Dream").  There's the aforementioned villain with nefarious, self-fulfilling intentions.  But here's the cool thing about Tangled: the stereotypes and conventions we've come to accept are given a revamp, but not to the point of being so noticeable or annoying or whatever (it's not, for example, a Dreamworks animated movie).  It's a tough rope to walk (my fellow C-Stumper Matt made a much better case for this dichotomy at Disney than I could), but it somehow works.  I was reminded of the quick-witted humor of a Warner brothers cartoon, even to the point of thinking back to what the Animaniacs writers would've done with material like this as very similar, and yet still thinking of the Disney formula, namely with the songs and the general outcome.

One of the things that makes Tangled so fresh is the approach to the characters, making them conventional and "family friendly" but genuinely funny, and (shock) without a reliance on a whole lot of pop culture gags or whatever.  The leads, Rapunzel and Rider, are likable people who have genuine concerns about what they're doing, and it's fun to see how they work out their conflicts (when Rapunzel finally comes down from the Tower for the first time she has a kind of "OMG this is awesome!" "OMG I am in soo much trouble!" thing that makes for some sweet-natured fun.  And Rider, somewhat more typical though more roguish and sarcastic than other Disney male-heroes in a female-dominated story (kind of like the John Cusack character in Anastasia maybe? didn't see that one, anyway moving on).  Hell, there's even a horse named Maximus that is made into a bad-ass of sorts as he is at first a bounty-hunter out to get Flynn Rider for his big reward, and then becomes his ally though still with reservations (and a belly full of apples).

The big surprise though is the Mother Gothel.  Matt, too, pointed out some of the genuine creativity with this character, but I'll elaborate: she is one of the most terrifying villains in Disney movie memory precisely because of her two-faced nature.  She's sweet and doting, and then cold as ice on the other.  She's like a toxic combination of adorable Christian-Conservative Mother who wants to keep her child sheltered from all of the harm in the world, and the subtly abrasive Guilt-Trippin' Jewish Mother who makes statements like "Oh great,  now *I'm* the bad guy!"  I don't know if I've ever seen a villain quite like her, and yet she has qualities like the Judge in 'Hunchback of Notre Dame' and Sleeping Beauty.  Oh, I should mention Sleeping Beauty more - this is like that, only, all overall, (get ready for this) better.

That is, except, maybe, most of the songs.  Disney thought they had a slam-dunk this time by bringing back Alan Menken for the songs, but most of them aren't memorable or catchy and a little clunky with music and lyrics (save for the aforementioned pub song and maybe parts of the lantern scene - oh by the way that scene is absolutely FANTASTIC visually as an experience).  What saves the movie is that it's gorgeously drawn (I say 'drawn' though it's CG, you'll see what I mean when you watch it), and it even has a one up on most movies period this year with its 3D.  Perhaps it's effective as it's hard to notice it some of the time- this was also the case reportedly with Toy Story 3 in 3D- but it works in its subtle way, and is most pronounced but beautifully so in the lantern sequence.  As the characters are in the foreground and we're still made to look at them, the background with all of those yellow marshmallow-like points give the glowing hue without distracting.  If more animated movies can follow Disney's trend, there might be a place for it just yet.

(and now for something completely different...)

Faster is a lean steak-n-potatoes movie.  Not much bullshit, only minor filler and mostly killer, and with characters that are so out of the textbook that it's admirable how, with the exception of a couple of big and almost disastrously implausible twists near the end (which I won't reveal here except to say it involves guns), it could be a story transplanted back to the 1940's with Robert Mitchum in the lead in gloriously-shadow-laden black and white, or in the 1970's with Charles Bronson with less bald and more mustache.

It's good, however, that the movie is out in 2010 as opposed to several years ago; I'm reminded of that two-week period of time, literally, when three revenge movies came out one after the other (Kill Bill Vol. 2, The Punisher and Man on Fire).  Faster owes a lot to the Punisher (revenge for a family member slain), certainly also to Kill Bill (a "death-list" that gets checked off a name one by one).  But to give some credit to George Tillman Jr - and contrary to what dudes said in their review as calling it a 'grindhouse' movie - it takes itself seriously enough to be enjoyed as just a straight-on dramatic thriller.  It's not being a so-crazy-it's-fun movie like a double-feature from the Weinsteins or even like the Crank movies.  It's just a straight up thriller stripped to (mostly) essentials; we believe the characters, as thin as (save for Billy Bob Thornton's "Cop") they might be, and that they are capable of what they do, or what they did.

Simple shit: "Driver" was what his profession entailed, getting-away from bank robberies with his brother and crew.  But the crew were set up buy someone, and the crew were shot and killed and, much more tragically for Driver, his brother.  Driver as shot, too, however now as a "Ghost" since the bullet didn't the brain, going out the cheek.  Ten years for the bank robbery.  Out and free, he kills a guy right away, just so he can get the "information" he needs.  He's a bit Frank Castle.  And a bit Terminator (does the guy even eat, and an enjoyable lack of subtlety all the way through).  His form of forgiveness is to call up one of the Dead-Men's sons and telling him the basic of what just happened.  He's dead.  "I'll kill you," the son says.  "Do what you got to do, but be ready to go down that path," Drive responds.  No shit.

Billy Bob Thorton's "Cop" (yes, introduced as such) is a little meatier as a character, and has more conflict going on than Driver as he has this murder case he asked for with this bald dude going around shooting former informants, and with trying to reconcile with his wife and son after being a heroin junkie for years.  This time Thornton isn't playing a louse for laughs, for straight drama, and it's refreshing.  A little (no, a lot) more basic is a character named "Killer" via title card who is a professional contractor, might call it quits with wife Leslie Bibb, but isn't quite ready as he's a little off his meds and has one more job to do.  For the money?  Nah, it's only one dollar.  It's the pride of the killer.  And his prey is just, you guessed it, the title.

I liked the no-frills approach to many of the scenes, and the action and chase scenes, when they do occur, are similarly cut-to-the-chase and down and dirty.  Perhaps that's what the appeal is through most of the film.  We know what will be done, and what needs to be done, like in a Punisher script or comic book as might be.  But it's interesting to see what small choices and details characters make, like when a showdown takes place in a seizure-inducing scene (uncomfortable but what the hell) where The Rock stares down Billy Bob Thornton with his gun, and Thornton is almost ready, nay prepared, to die, but he lets him live.  It's a scene where the intensity builds from the actors and the situation, if not so much the over-wrought lighting, and that has an appeal to it.

Again, the ending (or rather the climax) is a bit too silly to take after so much heavy drama, particularly in an exchange between the Rock and the actor Adewale (aka Mr. Echo) who plays a Tent-Revival Reverend by a river.  And some of the dialog can lean towards the cheesy if it's not careful (such as, say, any jokes for Carla Gugino - damn good and attractive actress, but no puns for the detective!)  But overall, if you just need to chillax on your barca-lounger with a six-pack, maybe by yourself, what the hell, with a "guy" movie that just cuts to the chase, this isn't a bad choice for action and suspense in a stripped-down, gladly conventional R-rated manner.

(Oh, and you may notice I called him The Rock.  It's not to disrespect the man's actual name and how he's now using it all the time as an actor but... for a movie like this, The Rock is all over it - so know your role and shut your mouth... Jabroni... ah, those were the days...)

Monday, November 29, 2010

Rocco and His Brothers, un film di Luchino Visconti

Just take a look at this poster, the original Italian version.  That image says one of two things (it could say more, but let's say two for this review): it's about a man and a woman who are being blinded by the yellow grain of the fields in, uh, Italy.  Or, it's an Italian opera with BIG emotions and BIG characters, both emotionally and physically, mostly emotionally.  If it's Luchino Visconti, who made a movie in the 1950's (Senso) that was all but an opera, and The Leopard, which makes its marks in operatic- big grandiose movements with lavish sets and costumes and extras and music and Nino Rota- I'd say it's the latter.  And Rocco and His Brothers has it all as a Visconti movie.

As it is you can take it or leave it; some will be turned off of such large emotional strokes dramatically.  At first I thought it was just melodrama, but it really goes much farther than that.  Visconti is unique among Italian directors to be able to fuse, particularly in this film, an eye and ear for a neo-realist (improv situations, depicting the lives of lower class people just trying to make it) and of someone who has staged Carmen a few dozen times on stage.  He's the director who made La Terra Trema in 1947 and established himself as one of the Neo-Realist big-guns along with Rossellini and DeSica, but his career went a different path than them, and his films are primarily concerned with characters in super-high-stakes situations, betrayals, love and lust lifted up and broken, and life and death things set against society.

Rocco and His Brothers has both of that.  It's the story of a family, the Parondi's, who move from the south to the north of Italy (quite significant, as they move as they were in dire straits and hope to find some better pastures in Milan).  There are five brothers, one of whom is already living in the city (Vincenzo) and is a boxer.  The other big-male brothers- Rocco, Simone and Ciro, end up boxing at one time or another as well, and becomes one of the big points in the plot of the movie (though, as with one of the films that most influenced it and its director, Martin Scorsese's Raging Bull, boxing is the backdrop but not the main thing really).  The brothers, guided by their very loving if very Italian mother Rosaria (i.e BIG emotions, BIG everything really), try and make it in their little world by work, and then find that life catches up with them.  Specifically, Simone, who meets an attractive young woman, Nadia, who raises the ire of the mother upon first site but not anyone else.  At first really.

The movie presents this story with a straightforward narrative line- that the brothers work at their jobs, boxing or at a dry cleaners or whatever and then meet their respective loves (one of them meets the radiant Claudia Cardinale, used only so much as to notice her among the others)- but it's in an epic scope.  If this were a book it might be 800 pages long and weigh about five pounds.  That would give enough time to let descriptions of characters and their emotional stakes in one another and how intense things get when relationships turn dark in the second half of the film.  Indeed Visconti plays upon his epic scope by the halfway point is easy to tell as Rocco goes off to do his army service duty and comes back a year later.

What's the big conflict?  One of the most elemental things (again, the connection to Raging Bull, though Mean Streets will come up too) as two men who are quite different- one is very loving, almost or trying to be saint-like in forgiving and helping out with his brother's transgressions (Rocco), and the other a guy who has a lot of pride, becomes a big-time boxer, but then loses his stamina and becomes a joke among most other people in the town (Simone)- and in the middle is the woman who has a nice but half-hearted affair with Simone, but falls in love with Rocco.

Ah, jealousy, envy, such evil monsters they can be for the wrong bastard, and Simone is one of them.  In one of the most staggering scenes ever put to film by an Italian (and for its time, maybe even now, quite violent), Simone confronts Rocco about his very human connection to Nadia when he sees it with his own eyes.  It's a bloody fight in a very dingy part of town, almost a junkyard, and at night.  The fight becomes much more graphic as Simone tries to "reclaim" Nadia as his own by abuse and rape in front of Rocco's eyes, and it's a brawl that is brutal, if only in the dramatic weight the actors carry.

There are other stories going on in Rocco and His Brothers, such as issues with Simone and money (this becomes a big story direction in the better part of the second half of the film), and how the mother figures into it and then even near the end what role the youngest brother, the little boy, Luca, will play into things with whether the family may ever go back to their roots in Sicily.  There's even a slight and somewhat underdeveloped plotline for Ciro.  But it's arguably the three big characters, this love triangle that is sordid and loaded with rage and mistrust and psychological head-games with the extremes of the brother who cares too much and the brother who could give less than a shit, that makes up the power of Rocco and His Brothers.  Some of the dialog is dated, and a few moments between brothers and their mutual attractor Nadia are written with such a heavy hand that it could dangerously veer into a Soap Opera... come to think of it, describing it as a Soap Opera and describing it as Operatic, what could be the difference there?  Maybe a difference in camera style, at least, or the depth to the performances.

Ultimately what's impressive is how Visconti is able to bring everything together and make things so exhilarating but natural at the same time.  This film came out the same year as La Dolce Vita and L'Avventura, and while those films created their own buzzes, no less important in history and unto a film itself is Visconti's effort, only with less of a impress-aspiring-film-buffs-everywhere reputation.  Its strengths are not in any particular visual dynamic like a Fellini or Antonioni, though Giuseppe Rotuno's cinematography, with great attention to the large scope and then conversely the smaller spaces like the Parondi's very cramped living space when they're first in Milan (and close-ups, Good Lord), is nothing to scoff at either.  It's in its attention to just pure drama, sibling rivalry that is so loud and passionate that when things are happy it seems like things could soar in the air, and the on a dime (or, at one crucial and unforgettable moment, cutting back and forth) wholly tragic and uncompromisingly bleak in its outlook.

Good performances help things along, like Alain Delon's quietly riveting turn as Rocco, or Nadia, who mostly steals all of her scenes who, as played with fierce energy, passion, sensuality, excitement, and dimensions of hate and love by Annie Giardot, is like a hurricane.  A little trickier to peg is Renato Salvatori, whose performance is a slow burner and only gets good once the drama really picks up in the story (until then he's mostly a two-dimensional character).  Also impressive is the actress playing the mother, who has to play things biggest of all but make things seem realistic to a degree without getting maudlin.  But more than any one performance the musical score by Nino Rota keeps the tempo and harrowing spectacle of scenes in check.  When a scene needs that sadness, it gets there, and when it needs to be a little more happy (i.e. the snow-shoveling scene) it gets that too.  It's one of his best scores in the same attention to detail that the director gives the story, accentuating what needs to be done and making smaller moments sparkle as well.

It's not entirely an easy film to love, depending mostly on who you are or what your tastes are in Italian or just general movies.  I should reiterate that it doesn't hold up over time quite as well as the counterparts of 1960 that I mentioned, sometimes just in a general attitude towards women (there's one scene in particular with a female clothing store owner and Simone that spirals out of control in a "hot" way that is just totally ridiculous today).  Yet at its core its a story of family strife and what one will do for another even in the harshest circumstances.

It's clear to see that Scorsese wouldn't have two of his most memorable films (each with characters that are hard to take most times and filled with animalistic energies played by De Niro), but this is not the reason, or the only one anyway, to see the movie.  Visconti's canvas is large and impressive, and at the same time dealing with characters that can touch us without being set in real period settings and decorum.  Its concerns are more common than one might think to realize until its well over, and whether it's scenes in the ring with boxing (crudely shot but still amazing) or in a bedroom, Rocco and His Brothers hits a nerve with its depiction, mostly honestly, of life in a city for a family splintered with personalities.


French iconoclast/legend/pain-in-the-ass Jean-Luc Godard once said, "I make films to make time pass."  While he probably meant it in the way I'm about to put it, I think Jim McBride, who in 1983 co-wrote and directed a remake of Godard's seminal 1960 debut film A bout de souffle, made such a film - a film that makes time pass kind of cool, kind of dull, not too much to make us rattled but nothing that leaves us too angry.  This is a Breathless for the 80's, after all, albeit with an (no-shit-sherlock)anti-hero who loves rockabilly (specifically Jerry Lee Lewis, goodness gracious) and Silver Surfer, and so there's slicker filmmaking, some slicker music, and more sex and a little more violence than one saw back in 1960.  And, as remakes tend to go, less innovation and originality.

But hey, what was Breathless than an homage to old gangster pictures- it's dedicated to Monogram Pictures, who put out the cheapest B-movies imaginable- so why not make another homage to it by way of a remake.  McBride wants to be faithful to his source(s) to be sure, as there is a loving but blatant scene where the two young lovers hide from the cops behind a screen at a movie theater that just so happens to be playing the 1948 Joseph H. Lewis classic Gun Crazy.  Indeed this was one of the movies that inspired the original Breathless.  Silver Surfer, sadly, couldn't have made much of an impact on Godard as the character wasn't invented till later (though Godard was a fan of Marvel Comics, all that I digress).

So why make this movie?  Does it have much of a purpose to exist?  It exists, therefore it is, and it's meant to appeal to two camps: 'average' movie-goers looking for an erotic thriller, or the encyclopedic-knowledgeable on movies (such as Quentin Tarantino, who in his sometimes not-so-infinite movie wisdom puts this way above the Godard film, can't imagine why with rockabilly and comic books and sex and violence and... nevermind).  I can't really speak to how much the film appeals on the first level, since it's only intermittently thrilling and while erotic only so on a superficial level as they are two good looking people (Kaprisky is there as eye candy if nothing else) who get to fuck a bit on camera.  As for the movie buff angle... eh.

The thrilling and powerful thing about Godard's film was that it was an innovative picture and was genuinely cool about itself while sticking to its homage-roots.  It's not meant to be perfect by any stretch, but it's a very fun movie that holds up after fifty years.  McBride's film, however, hasn't aged quite well, despite some of its music being timeless (hey, The Pretenders pop up at one point!) and a couple of enjoyable chase scenes.  I may have neglected to mention the plot, but it's always so thin in either version: a young punk steals a car, shoots a cop (by accident or intentional, intentional accident?), and wants to run away with his girlfriend to another country to escape the Fuzz.  What fills up this plot?  Attitude, baby, attitude.

I wish I could stop comparing, but it's tough to do; McBride doesn't quite attract attention the way that, say, Gus van Sant did with his remake of Psycho.  It's not a shot-by-shot remake per-say, although most of the scenes from the original are here to a T.  But the tone has a kind of smug hipness that even Godard didn't quite have as he was still a fresh-faced filmmaker cutting his teeth on jump cuts.  Without much innovation and more of a heavy-hand of the symbolism of Silver Surfer (there's actually a fucking scene where a kid points out to Jesse why the Surfer sucks, and the whole conversation and semi-lecturing turns into self-commentary, only it's the annoying kind that makes me thirst for 90's hipsters), it has to rely on the mechanics of its story, which is told fairly simply.

Basically if you strip away the cool of A bout de souffle what you have left is just a basic thriller, only McBride is much more in love with stealing cars (I counted about six or seven in the film, maybe there's more), his rockabilly tunes, and the charisma he can only hope his two leads spark on the screen.  Luckily Gere is game, in a performance that is enjoyable on a completely shallow level.  He could play this character in his sleep, which should perhaps be a compliment.  He's a louse, a jerk, and not too many people like him (certainly those that see his face in the paper), and Gere makes it his vehicle by just sticking to how rude and crude but oh-so-"cool" he can make Jesse be.  While I might still prefer Belmondo for a more innocent way about his assholishness, it's nice to see Gere make the role his own, and at the least I wasn't too bored with him in scenes even if the direction and writing could get dull.

No, the really big gaping misstep here is the casing of Valerie Kaprisky.  Did McBride even hold an audition for this one?  According to IMDb Natassja Kinski was up for the role, and yet somehow she lost to an actress as this French student is so bland and affectless, so lost in what she's doing.  Sure, her body looks great, and is nice to watch in a bathing suit or all wet from being out of the shower, but what else is there?  Nothing, really.  She could have worked as a blank slate in another role, but here she has to be on top of it, as interesting to watch fully clothed as not.  Jean Seberg had a genuine sexy quality, but she could hold her own- nay, do even better sometimes- than her male counterpart.  Kaprisky perhaps fares better when she can speak her own language.  In English, she's got bad timing, awful reactions, can't say anything with conviction, and when she has to emote (i.e. the big climax, much more melodramatic than one could imagine possible) it's cringe-inducing.

It's not to say she brings down the movie single-handedly, and she doesn't.  What makes it just a simple, slight remake is that its attitude and cool is so surface as to feel distant from the audience.  No jump cuts, no hand-held photography.  Nothing really feels all that urgent.  It's like a synthetic mix of all of those lovers-on-the-run movies with less logic and less real POW in its style, save for a few moments of action and suspense.

Is it better to have grief or nothing?  How about Good-Grief?