Thursday, September 11, 2008


Martin Scorsese, USA, 1990
3.5 out of 4 stars

Okay, I have to admit it; all these gangster movies really blur together after a while. Whereas I usually have a strong preference for forming my own opinion before reading any other reviews, I’ve found that films from this genre only really become legible for me after I find and read a piece that puts the innovations of that film into focus for me. To take just a trivial example, it’s hard to even think of this film as particularly violent, even 18 years later, yet the article reminds us how it was viewed at the time.

All this is not to say I didn’t enjoy it. I felt like the youth scenes were particularly well done, setting the tone quite effectively and avoiding sentimentality. The narration really holds the film together (why does every film I see recently have it?), and the addition of narration by the female lead, Lorraine Bracco, is a particularly nice touch, as it injects some hint of female agency (as uninspiring as her character actually is) into the hyper-macho proceedings.

Unfortunately, Bracco’s narration seems to disappear about halfway through the film, right when we most want to know what she was thinking. That’s not the only problem I had with the picture. In particular, I’m not quite convinced by Ray Liotta, however; is he supposed to sound like a psycho when he laughs (Joe Pesci seems to have that role taken) or is he just supposed to seem like someone who’s trying too hard (or is that the actor, not the character?). Pesci and Robert De Niro also largely content themselves with hamming it up and revisiting their personas, which only pushes me towards my blasphemous suspicion that De Niro doesn’t quite merit the hallowed tones with which people usually speak of him.

That said, there’s a lot of style here and I think it all works. There’s also a good helping of social critique, although I was a bit oblivious to it while watching it. I feel like the glorification of gangster mythology (particularly in gangsta rap, with which I am ultimately more familiar than the films that inspired it) has really obscured the meaningful (if not unproblematic) things that the filmmakers were trying to say, even in a film that tries to demystify everything. I also feel like I will probably be taking a break from this genre for the time being!

Source: Warner DVD
9 Sep, 9:55 PM

Monday, September 08, 2008

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

Andrew Dominik, USA, 2007
3.5 out of 4 stars

I’m sure there are exceptions, but most of the films I’ve seen lately that run 2.5 hours or longer seem to have had fairly obvious sections that could have been removed. It’s to the credit of Andrew Dominik that, in the exhilarating closing sequence of the film, he made me forget these relatively-extraneous scenes, but sitting down to write this “review,” they are slowly coming back to mind. I still have to conclude that they don’t mar the film to any great degree, but they do raise questions about editing as well as the sometimes-lazy assumption that a film can instantly achieve “prestige” with a longer-than-average running time.

That said, Dominik and his crew have otherwise done a technical job that is unimpeachable. The visuals are crisp and engrossing, the shot composition is inventive but unobtrusive, and the narration is delivered effectively, especially in comparison to Woody Allen’s more recent effort. Thematically, the film is what you’d expect from the title; it deals with the ambivalent and unpleasant aspects of celebrity worship, addressing itself to what seem to be postmodern problems while simultaneously reminding us that some cultural diseases reach back into supposedly more idyllic times.

The only question is whether the plot is focused enough, as Dominik sometimes makes long detours to follow Jesse James (Brad Pitt) to his meetings with ex-underlings. The overall thrust of the picture suggests that Bob Ford (Casey Afflect) is the subject of the piece, and Jesse’s dealings with others do provide context to Bob’s trials, but overall I felt as if, at least in retrospect, the meandering was a bit self-indulgent and unnecessary.

Source: Warner DVD
5 Sep, 10:29 PM

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Hamlet 2

Andrew Fleming, USA, 2008
3.5 out of 4 stars

I really loved this film, even if it made me cringe at times, but I definitely think there’s a possibility that I’m giving the filmmakers too much credit for sophistication. It doesn’t help that, when I heard about the concept, I immediately wanted it to be great or at least good, as it just seemed like something too good to squander. It was this that caused me to overlook the mixed reviews and go see the thing in theaters.

It’s indisputable that some level of “meta” is going on in Hamlet 2, as it opens with Dana Marschz, a drama teacher played by Steve Coogan, mouthing the words to a staging of his own “adaptation” of Erin Brockovich (which, in itself, shows how easy it is to take the piss out of "earnest" films just by repeating them with less conviction and skill). Yes, his eventual decision to create the play after which the entire film is named is actually a step forward in originality for this guy, and when he is confronted with an influx of “troubled” (or are they?) Latino students in his drama class, he reaches into that same category for reference to “classics” of middlebrow underdog uplift, especially Dangerous Minds. His students, of course, initially waver between disinterest and mockery.

Most of the film, then, consists of Coogan acting pathetic in almost every way possible, but Dana is not exactly deluded, which is what I’m used to in this “zany” sad sack portrayals. The most important part, for me, is that Coogan and the filmmakers make the effort to actually extract jokes from this patheticness, rather than just merely reveling his lameness and trolling for unearned laughs, as so many “lowbrow” comedies do nowadays.

Where the film gets more complicated, and where I start to become more uncertain about what’s really going on, is when the inevitable staging of the “sequel” play occurs. It’s certainly entertaining in a perverse way, but it finally concludes with a brief sequence almost devoid of laughter; I have my theories as to why it happened, but it’s here that I may have especially been over-interpreting. The way I see it, either they were making a very clever move near the end there, or they eventually got lazy (or went soft) with their subject matter. Honestly, I’m not even sure if it’s a satire. I guess you can see why it got mixed reviews, right? It may be worth a look for you, but it’s probably a better bet for DVD, where I’m sure most will see it as it becomes a cult classic.

Source: Universal 35mm print
9 Sep, 1:00 PM

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Memories of Murder

(Salinui chueok)
Bong Joon-ho, South Korea, 2003
3 out of 4 stars

This film takes us to a rural Korean village in 1986, where a uniformly incompetent and undertrained police force is fumbling about, attempting to find a serial murderer. Korean film is somewhat famous for its unlikely mix of comedy and melodrama, but Memories of Murder manages to combine these elements very organically (moreso perhaps than Bong Joon-ho’s follow-up film, The Host, although I think ultimately that film is more rewarding). Much of this film’s effectiveness comes from setting up the usual oppositions, in this case between the oafish, out-of-shape local policeman and the suave, professional detective from Seoul, and then gradually undermining our expectations as things progress. Meanwhile, characters who initially seem indistinguishable gradually distinguish themselves in often-shocking ways.

Indeed, the filmmakers have clearly set out to shine a light on the incompetence of these rural cops, but the film clearly shows that it was not so much a failure of will, but rather more of a structural problem. The abuse of power that the police frequently engage in is subtly put into a larger political context by occasional scenes of military force and pointed comments, one of which is particularly devastating and therefore best left unspoiled (it might help to know that South Korea was still under a dictatorship during this period, but I think even if you were ignorant of this fact, you would be able to gather it from the scenes I’m referring to). Once again, I thought that the political barbs were a bit subtler than in Bong’s later film.

You might still be wondering where the humor comes from, and how it can possibly be appropriate. I think it works because of the gap between what the police want to accomplish and what they are actually capable of accomplishing, considering the significant structural limitations they are operating under. I certainly found this picture to be much more valuable than my the "typical" serial killer film, at least as I understand it (I rarely watch films about this subject), as it addresses much larger issues than the usual cat-and-mouse game. That said, Zodiac is certainly an even-better attempt at broadening the genre, and it is made with greater technical and creative flourish. Memories of Murder is well-done, but it didn’t always hold my interest, although it’s hard to say exactly why.

Source: UMVD DVD
31 Aug, 11:45 PM

Monday, August 25, 2008

Vicky Cristina Barcelona

Woody Allen, USA / Spain, 2008
3 out of 4 stars

I’m not sure what to make of this movie. A spoiler-heavy review that I read after I’d decided not to see this movie (a decision I obviously reversed) indicated that it was just another example of Allen’s simplistic, misogynist depictions of women, which possibly primed me to react unfavorably when the two titular protagonists were introduced via a condescending, brutally reductive monologue, delivered by an unseen, apparently omniscient male narrator. These women are clearly presented as types; one is free-spirited, the other is straight-laced, and while they may not do what you (on the most superficial level) might expect them to do at all times, they largely stay true to their characterizations.

So is this misogyny, or merely a kind of (im)morality play, with the characters representing life paths rather than real people, and the narration constituting a judicious use of what Bertolt Brecht called the alienation effect (with which, I must confess, I have only a passing familiarity)? As the film progressed, with the narration continuing but becoming more infrequent, I found myself more accommodating of the latter hypothesis, and later, my female friend did point out that the men are easily more loathsome or pathetic (usually not at once) than the women, hands down. I’m not sure that debunking the misogyny accusation is as simple as merely pointing that out, but there’s something to it.

Overall, then, it’s an entertaining film with some dubious values (I don’t know just how laughable I should regard the depiction of “European men,” for one thing, as the one presented here seems more like a cinematic cliché than anything). I laughed quite a bit throughout, although I wasn’t always sure if I was supposed to be laughing (which, I suppose, is better than being sure that you’re not supposed to be laughing). I don’t quite recommend it, largely because there does seem to be a certain emptiness of purpose here, but it’s not that bad either.

Source: MGM 35mm print
22 Aug, 9:30 PM

Sunday, August 17, 2008

A Moment of Romance

(Tian ruo you qing)
Benny Chan, Hong Kong, 1990
2 out of 4 stars

A jewelry heist leads to a getaway, which leads to a hostage situation, which leads the most carelessly-run police lineup I’ve seen in a film (who knows if the Hong Kong police were or still are that careless), which to an unlikely, and somewhat poorly-motivated, love between a triad (Andy Lau) and a well-off, sheltered young woman (Wu Shien-lien. The English title is perhaps misleading in that the majority of the “moments” in the film are devoted to “romance.” The gangster plot, while crowded with violent but ill-defined feuding bigshots whose machinations are difficult to follow, is mostly relegated to the backdrop.

Despite all this, A Moment of Romance is a particularly unfocused film even in its brief 90 or so minutes. Characterization is all but nonexistent; instead all the principles, including a “sidekick” who hints at being developmentally challenged, are just one-dimensional stock characters, which is perhaps unsurprising considering that the plot is also quite clichéd; there are a couple flirtations with moral ambiguity, but even those seem to be rote in the context of the overall film. Furthermore, nothing about how the film unfolded encouraged me to relate to the characters or to be concerned about their fates; the closest I came to that was a highly-detached, mild curiosity about which of the several conventional paths the filmmakers would take as the ending loomed (and it’s not all that hard to guess, either).

Of course, style can sometimes make up for these failings, but despite some promising flourishes in the early car chase sequence, there is little about the film that is stylistically compelling either. As is typical of even the better Hong Kong films from this era, the music is uninformly horrible, either baroque or repetitive, and at least three interminable Cantopop song montages caused me to decrease the volume. Honestly, it wasn’t an entirely painful experience, but I’m at a loss as to why this was recommended on various websites (I forget which, exactly). Perhaps it was more a product of its time than anything, or perhaps I just don’t appreciate the style.

Source: Tai Seng DVD
17 Aug, 11:06 PM

Sunday, August 10, 2008

The Godfather

Francis Ford Coppola, USA, 1972
3.5 out of 4 stars

The key question here is, was the enjoyment I got from actually, finally watching The Godfather greater than the entertainment value I got from all the times people asked me, dumbfoundedly, “you’ve never watched The Godfather?!” As much as I would like to be a perverse contrarian (I admit it), yes, it was worth the trade-off.

There is, however, something of a profound miscalculation involved in watching a film like this when one is already 27 years old, which is to say that almost nothing in film could seem as familiar as this. I’m usually not that good at anticipating things, but this time I was able to see almost every murder or atrocity coming. Recognizing the origin not only of well-worn but sometimes-amusing catchphrases, not to mention the entire gangster genre as we know it today, with its tortured attitude towards glamorization of the practice, is fun in a way, but also invariably distancing.

The fact is, some seminal, watershed films were not as heavily imitated (because people didn’t “get it” at the time) and still have amazing power even now, while some were a bit too successful and as such can be robbed of their power by the legion of imitators that one may have had the misfortune to have seen first. Let me just say that the story is compelling, but moreso in the beginning, that the characters are interesting, but not especially complex, that the depiction of and attitude towards women could have been worse, but is still pretty pitiful (so what is the point of Michael’s first marriage, exactly?), and that (and this is perhaps the most regrettable) expectations for hyper-violence and confrontation have been inordinately escalated to the point where this film seems, dare I say it, quaint in some aspects. That we, the bloodthirsty mail viewers, don’t entirely get what we want (even if, at the time, we might not have known that we wanted it), constitutes one of the few suggestions that we should actually not admire and envy the mafia; of course, the glamour is there in enough quantity that that is not the overall message most young men got from the film (in particular, an entire generation of “gangsta rappers” who made names like Corleone even more familiar for me).

I am a bit curious about seeing the next one, as I could readily imagine how it might indeed be better. I will probably wait a while, though.

Source: Paramount DVD
8 Aug, 8:08 PM