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Frozen River (2008)
"Weeds" without the jokes
I rented Frozen River this week in anticipation of the Oscar ceremony, curious to see the career making performance of Melissa Leo. Then, after I got the DVD but before I had started to watch it, she won the Spirit Award and my interest was piqued further. Ultimately, it took me three tries to get through this unremittingly grim and mostly improbable film.
Perhaps poverty is a hard subject to treat on film because in real life it is characterized by monotony. But as other critics of this picture have noted, it is so darn grim that it hurts to watch. Many plot points are improbable, and the actions of the protagonists are not just dumb, but in some cases suggest that they were already a bit morally bent even before hard times come. (Starting with this one: why does she already have a handgun at the beginning of the film?) Melissa Leo's performance is not bad, but honestly I did not find myself finding empathy--or even sympathy, which should be easier--for this character. (To be fair, the last ten minutes or so are a little more involving and maybe she has a bit of a character transformation, but not all that much.)
I found myself comparing this to the Showtime series Weeds. Of course Weeds starts with the advantage of the gorgeous and hilarious Mary Louise Parker, and it takes place in a more prosperous and thus less unremittingly grim social setting. But beyond that, it has a sense of satire and fun, even in the face of miserable circumstances, that is just missing here. For example, I can think of a number of films that deal with Native American poverty without getting completely bogged down in morosity on a level with Thomas Hardy: off the top of my head, Smoke Signals, and the fascinating character played by Tamara Podemski in Sterlin Harjo's excellent Four Sheets to the Wind, come to mind. Bad things happen, they don't have any money, but they still live with spirit and humor. Whereas in Frozen River these people seem to have already been beaten up so much before the film even starts that it is very hard to watch. I guess this might be realistic for some, but it doesn't really make for a great film.
The funniest thing I've seen in years ow!
I've recently discovered bro' Town on the little-watched, but occasionally indispensable, left-of-center US channel "LinkTV" (channel 375 on DirecTV), and have now watched all of the first season.
I'm not a New Zealander, have visited only once for about 3 days, so I am sure I am missing about a third of the jokes and the accents are daunting sometimes. (And the erratic close caption subtitles frequently get things wrong, which is funny in itself.) But there's plenty left over for the non-locals. I find myself laughing out loud at least a dozen times in every episode.
It's not surprising that people compare it to South Park, since it involves a gang of quasi-delinquents, but it reminds me more of King of the Hill: the tone is fairly laid back with intermittent bursts of surrealism, like Jeff da Maori's eight dads; the body-painted Australian Aboriginal student inexplicably dropped into this Auckland school; and Pepelo Pepelo's bizarre parental malfeasance and his constant visits to the pub and (even funnier) the bathroom, always preceded by his whining and warning, "I may be some time." The bumper segments with God, Jesus, and assorted dead celebs are also quite inspired.
Unfortunately, only the first 6 episodes have run on LinkTV and there's been no sign of the rest of them, nor do the subsequent seasons seem to be available on DVD in the US, so when I will get to see them? At least there is a decent episode synopsis (Warning: There Be Spoilers) on Wikipedia.
Starting Out in the Evening (2007)
Fine effort by Langella, overcome by clichés
Starting Out In the Evening isn't a very good movie, but Frank Langella is very good in it. It's almost as if he is acting in a different film from everyone else: his portrayal of the once-famous, aging author is nuanced and complex even has a touch of grandeur. The movie is insistently slow but he is worth watching.
The rest of the movie is a pile of lumpy clichés, overwritten dialogue wasted on underdeveloped characters: un-appreciated self-sacrificing biological-clock-ticking daughter (Lili Taylor) sleeping with the wrong guys and yearning for baby before it's too late; self-indulgent fatuous-elitist editor (Adrian Lester) who uses the daughter without respecting her until he is redeemed, apparently, by a single afternoon of menial good deeds; red-haired hot-intellectual grad-student vixen (Lauren Ambrose) who uses her sex appeal to manipulate the author for her own advancement. And when the ailing Langella is shown stretched out silently in bed, unfortunately I could not help but think, "There Lies Dracula, a washed-up New York writer."
Nice supplement to the fictional Cosells of Voight and Turturro
This is a nicely done HBO documentary, maybe a little heavy on talking heads and a little light on certain subjects (Cosell's troubled relationship with his Monday Night Football colleagues, the debacle of his variety show), but really good on his relationship with Muhammad Ali, and a strong reminder of his courageous insistence on making sports journalism honest and consequential matter, as well as his inimitable (albeit endlessly imitated) obnoxiousness. For all his faults (which were legion and well-documented), Cosell was a hero in the close-minded, complacently racist and risk-averse sports world of his day--but he was very self-conscious of his heroism and completely immodest about it, and this understandably put a lot of people off. It's very useful as a supplement to the dueling Howards portrayed by Jon Voight (Ali) and John Turturro (Monday Night Mayhem). Both of those actors were excellent in the role; but the documentary reminds you how unusual and intense the real Howard was.
Te amo (made in Chile) (2001)
pretty much the same as rich kids' problems anywhere (spoilers, sort of)
(Spoilers below, although the plot is kind of predictable.)
Four rich kids and their problems over a summer in Santiago. Their problems turn out to be pretty much the same as rich kids' problems anywhere, but with a few interesting twists--especially the girl who ends up ashamed, rather than proud, of her parents' political persecution under the old regime. I thought the treatment of the nanny who loves her charge inappropriately was more than a little unfair--although there is one line expressing some sympathy for her, she is dispatched with seemingly no concern about how she is going to eat or support her baby, and no one seeming to think that the boy (a privileged male in an ultra-machismo culture, after all) should take any responsibility for his treatment of her. So ultimately the film sets up some very interesting political, sexual, and especially class tensions but then fails to confront them--in the end, these 4 rich kids slide along on their privilege, and we are supposed to approve this display of the power of friendship. Still, it is always interesting to see places and people you don't usually see on the screen (and as another comment mentions, you really do get a sense of Santiago and its outskirts).
Mrs Brown (1997)
An English friend introduced me to Billy Connolly many years ago, telling me he was "the funniest man in the world." And that he may be (check out his comedy performances--he is amazing); but his dramatic talents haven't always been well used. In "Mrs. Brown" he is flat-out brilliant. Judi Dench got more awards (and she was excellent) but Connolly's performance is layered, oracular, ornery, charismatic, overwhelming. He seems like the soul of Scotland, wrapped in a passionate, sometimes dysfunctional, sometimes rewarding relationship with an England (and its queenly personification) which thinks itself superior but cannot conquer. I thought it was the best work anyone did in any film in 1997 and am sorry he didn't get more attention--and better roles in other films. (Beautiful Joe? The Imposters? Please.)
The first successful HK action movie with American actors
Not perfect, and several of Woo's HK films are far better, but Face/Off is probably the first (and maybe still the only) real Hong Kong style action film to be made in English with American stars. Great over-the-top acting in the best Hong Kong style. So you gotta leave your inhibitions at the door to enjoy it.
Career Girls (1997)
One of Mike Leigh's more easy-going efforts
This is one of Mike Leigh's more easy-going efforts, overall, a bit mannered, sort of an urban picaresque, "Naked"-lite if you will. When I saw it on initial release, I liked it fine, but thought it would be memorable mainly for particular bits--the very funny scene with the obnoxious yuppie flat owner, the very powerful scenes with Mark Benton as Ricky--rather than for any coherence. I saw it again this week and it is sticking in my mind with more impact than before; to me it now resonates as a meditation on the need to get on with one's life, and the costs (in friendship, soulfulness, caring) of doing so, and the tragedy of those who just can't make the jump. Not one of Leigh's greatest films, but like everything he's made, well worth the time.
Un amour de Swann (1984)
A good shot at adapting Proust to cinema
According to IMDB this seems to have been the first time anyone ever tried to adapt Proust to the movies. And though flawed, it's not a bad try--kind of languid, but that was probably deliberate. Jeremy Irons is one of the best at portraying repressed longing, and Ornella Muti is exquisite enough to explain Swann's amour fou.
Stranger Than Paradise (1984)
Like a gust of cold air
At the time it was released, Stranger than Paradise felt like a gust of cold air, sort of post-punk cleansing of film grammar--slow and deadpan to the point of self-parody, aggressively about nothing and about people you'd NEVER seen on a movie screen before, and with more black leader than probably any film ever. I rated it the best picture I saw in 1984. I'm not sure it plays quite that well today, after lots of other mainstream movies have stolen Jarmusch's tricks, but it's still surprising, and John Lurie, Richard Edson (later superb in Do the Right Thing), and the inimitable Cecillia Stark as Aunt Lotte are all still quite memorable. The long shot of the "tourists" at Lake Erie is amazing, forcing you to generate your own images out of the gloom like a James Turrell grey-light installation.
Well-made comedy with a disturbing undertone of pessimism
Splash is a really well-made Hollywood fantasy comedy, with early Tom Hanks already developing into the charismatic everyman and Darryl Hannah and John Candy at their best. But under the comedy and sweetness I have always thought there was a disturbing undertone of extreme pessimism--just what kind of ugly and cruel society do we live in, in which the mermaid Madison's only prospect is that she will be tortured, from which Hanks' character ultimately has to flee, never to see his beloved brother again? (The same dark undertone is even more pronounced, I think, in Ron Howard's next big hit Cocoon, where the old folks willingly escape an earth and families that don't seem to offer them anything anymore.)
Rollicking country comedy
Songwriter is a rollicking country comedy, not exactly what you'd expect from Alan Rudolph. Willie Nelson is wonderful in this picture, an actor of considerable great subtlety as well as the great singer you already knew he was. Rip Torn is hilariously hammy. If you have any fondness for the country (especially the Texas country) millieu, this is one to check out.
Purple Rain (1984)
The best rock musical ever?
Of course the plot is hackneyed and the acting (except for Morris and Jerome, who are great) awkward. In some sense that just makes the music feel more authentic by contrast. Prince in 1984 was at the top of his game, a musical genius who (at a time when black and white music were incredibly segregated) was bringing together everything from punk to funk to heavy metal in a singular fusion that pointed the way to a race-blind future. This picture (along with its soundtrack, and his other perfect album "1999") is the legacy.
Nineteen Eighty-Four (1984)
Gets the mood right
It is often said that Orwell was really writing about the bleak war-scarred England of his own time (1948) in his great political science (fiction) masterpiece. This Nineteen Eighty-Four manages to get that sense exactly right. Hard to imagine anyone better to play that downtrodden, already-half-broken Winston Smith than John Hurt. I think some may have found the film too gloomy, too resigned, but that really is the mood of the book.
An offense to an otherwise great series
The first and third Indiana Jones movies are great. But I thought this one, the middle chapter, was awful, and offensive. As others have commented, it comes off as racist, with white heroes and brown villains. Also, it is overtly dependent on the threat of violence to children--much like Jurassic Park, another Spielberg movie I have trouble enjoying for the same reason--but at least Jurassic Park has those amazing dinosaur special effects; Temple of Doom is mostly just a big gross-out, with way too much screaming and not enough fun.
Captures the time perfectly
Heartbreakers captures its place and materialistic time perfectly. It is a career peak for both Peter Coyote (projecting the charisma of a young Henry Fonda) and for the underappreciated Max Gail as his artist-nemesis. Carol Wayne, who was relegated through her career to playing arch-bimbos of the 60's pre-feminist variety (especially as Johnny Carson's frequent sidekick on the Tonight Show), turned in a moving performance here; sadly, she drowned not too long after this picture was released. This is well worth checking out, especially if you want to recapture what it felt like to be a single guy in LA in the early 80s.
One of the best syntheses of comedy and effects ever
Ghostbusters remains one of the best syntheses of comedy and great showy special effects ever. (Its closest rival is perhaps Men in Black.) The only negative: I guess it has to accept blame for all the mediocre (and terrible) bloated big-bucks pseudo-comedies that have tried to do the same thing over the years.
Not sure it was worth it--but Ghostbusters itself was and remains fresh, funny, just a tiny bit sexy (the "Keymaster," indeed!), and just spectacular to look at. A high point for legendary effects guru Richard Edlund, certainly, and for the first-generation SNL cast as well.
An essential part of the 1980's film canon, for better and worse.
There it is.
Amadeus is an almost perfect realization of its central conceit. If you accept that conceit (and I find it tremendously entertaining to do so, for the sake of the argument) Forman's picture plays it out flawlessly, assisted by phenomenal acting: Abraham's great brooding self-hating Salieri, Tom Hulce's hilarious embodiment of Mozart as a sort of 18th century version of Jerry Lee Lewis, not to mention Jeffrey Jones' brilliant portrayal of Emperor Joseph as a stolid, well-meaning bureaucrat trying ever so hard to be a good and creative philosopher king in defiance of his true (dull) nature. The music is performed and explained in a way that non-classicists can follow and learn from. A moving delight that rewards repeat viewing.