Sometimes we watch stuff that we want to talk just a little bit about, not a full review worth. These are those films. If any of the films reviewed are available on Netflix Instant Watch (US or Canada) or HuluPlus (US only), we’ll note that by putting a direct link below the capsule.
Everything Must Go
2010 USA. Director: Dan Rush. Starring: Will Ferrell, Rebecca Hall, Christopher Jordan Wallace, Michael Pena, Laura Dern.
This is Will Ferrell reminding us that he can do more than his usual loud comedy schtick – which gets tiresome quite quickly – and proving he’s a more than decent dramatic actor (he did the same thing with the underrated Stranger Than Fiction a few years back). Ferrell plays a recovering alcoholic whose wife leaves him, and as a result leaves all of his belongings on the lawn. With nowhere to go and pressure from the law to move on, he decides to hold a yard sale to buy himself some time. Nice supporting performances from Rebecca Hall and relative newcomer Christopher Jordan Wallace and a script that walks the comedy-drama line pretty well. Altogether a little too slight to leave much of a lasting impression but a pleasant, enjoyable watch nonetheless.
1959 France. Director: Robert Bresson. Starring: Martin LaSalle, Marika Green, Jean Pélégri, Dolly Scal, Pierre Leymarie.
The film postulates that humanity cannot find salvation without first making a lot of dumb and irrational mistakes. I do not disagree with this assessment. Salvation for our eponymous compulsive thief comes from a woman who, at the time it is safe to assume, was the most attractive woman on the planet (Malika Green, who apparently is Eva Green’s aunt). Three things struck out at me visually while watching this brand spankin’ new 35mm print of the film: First, the director favours his actors constantly walking at the camera from the long distance in a single unbroken shot. It happens often enough that it has to be intentional. I’m not sure what that means in terms of story, but it has the effect that the thief is coming for you, or your wallet, or your to await your judgement. It’s a pretty swell visual strategy. Second, there is a wallet-theft montage which takes place in a train-station and on a train in the latter third of the film that is pure joyous art. Really wonderfully done. Third, the splicing right before fade out transitions is so obvious such that you can perceive the cut every single time by a brightness shift. I wonder how often this was the case for films of that era, because never was it more obvious here. I know we should leave these things intact, but really, someone should fix that, it’s distracting and pulls you out of the film.
1988 USA. Director: Martin Brest. Starring: Robert De Niro, Charles Grodin, Yaphet Kotto, Joe Pantoliano, John Ashton, Dennis Farina.
Definitely another case of crossing a film off my “list of shame,” I have no idea how I hadn’t seen this film until recently. I was glad to find it wasn’t a dated film that people rave about because they loved it years ago, it’s actually an extremely enjoyable (reluctant!) road trip movie mixing often hilarious dialogue with surprisingly thrilling chase sequences and the like. At this point it’s not one of those instant favourite movies for me but in time that could change.
The Fog of War
2003 USA. Director: Errol Morris.
Empathize with your enemy. Belief and seeing are often both wrong. Be prepared to re-examine your reasoning. The title card ‘lessons’ of politics and war from former Secretary of State Robert S. McNamara come wildly to life against the backdrop of well-purposed stock footage and the music of Phillip Glass. The camera stays close on McNamara’s face daring you to judge his emotional state as he recalls time-span from WWII until Vietnam and America’s response and role in warfare. The Fog of War is magnetic and horrible and human all at the same. time. Ultimately however, the lesson of this film, on the eve of American going for a double-dip into the Middle East is, “Learn From your mistakes.” Oooops.
Scenes From A Marriage
1973 Sweden. Director: Ingmar Bergman. Starring: Liv Ullmann, Erland Josephson.
A fascinating 5 hour walk along the precipice of a single couple’s dissolution of their marriage. The film’s breadth is pretty astounding – it bounces with very little effort from the subtle minutia of suppressed feelings to full blown histrionics cursing God, family and societal conventions. More than once my jaw dropped as one of the pair (usually the recently departed Erland Josephson’s Johan) tosses out an off the cuff comment that strikes me as devastating – and yet they still circle back to their feelings for each other. The full 5 hour version does get a little weary to be honest – though I can completely see how Bergman is pushing and pulling this couple to cover the wide swath of possibilities and to show the damage that being an emotional illiterate can cause, there are moments that you just want to slap them both. Johan is despicable in countless ways (just when he’s reached bottom, he finds another pathetic head-up-his-ass moment) and Ullmann’s Marianne is a swampland of contradictions (though almost always radiant). By the end of the film you’re simply drained after watching them hash out their resentments, issues and failures over 10 years. A thoroughly distressing, messy, brilliant masterpiece.
The Virgin Spring
1960 Sweden. Director: Ingmar Bergman. Starring: Max von Sydow, Birgitta Valberg, Gunnel Lindblom, Birgitta Pettersson, Axel Düberg.
I’m a reluctant Bergman fan at best, often finding his austerity a bit hard to relate to, but there was no problem here. The tale of a sunny, somewhat spoiled girl being raped and killed by three woodland wanderers is certainly ugly, and Bergman doesn’t sugarcoat anything – if anything, I was aghast at how explicit the film is for 1960. Yet depravity is balanced by the foibled humanity that Bergman infuses into nearly every frame – and the framing and cinematography is never ugly, even when what it’s capturing is. In fact, I haven’t seen a film as downright beautiful as this for a long time. It’s a juxtaposition that only adds to the film’s great power, ensuring it will stick with me for a very long time.
Bergman marathon continues with a film many consider to be one of the master’s greatest works. While it is not my favorite thus far, I do still love The Virgin Spring as a meticulously realized medieval drama that has visual and narrative similarities to Kurosawa’s Rashomon (minus the relativism of truth). My one minor complaint is that the story conforms to a familiar didactic structure and you easily anticipate every beat as it unfolds; still, there is a perverse joy in just watching how the drama plays out and waiting for the characters to catch up to your foreknowledge of tragedy. This is definitely one of Bergman’s most beautiful looking films; Max Von Sydow looks absolutely monumental, like he was hollowed out and carved from wood, a living breathing relic of medieval art, and Birgitta Pettersson, as his daughter, seems an ornamental jewel set against everything brute in man and nature.
Small Time Crooks
2000 USA. Director: Woody Allen. Starring: Woody Allen, Tracey Ullman, Hugh Grant, Elaine May.
I was on a good run with Woody Allen films for awhile there – “A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy”, “Broadway Danny Rose”, “Radio Days”, “Shadows And Fog”, “Zelig”, “Manhattan Murder Mystery” – a top notch string of 80s and early 90s films that ranged from very strong to some of his best work. Now that I’ve cracked into the 2000’s, it appears that I’m reduced to sorting through the chaff…His first entry of the millenium seems rushed, underwritten and without much love for its characters. In fact, it’s downright bad – possibly the worst Allen film I’ve seen so far (though the next four in sequence after this film do NOT exactly have stellar reputations). The jokes (except for one or maybe two) flop with thuds and even though both Tracey Ullman and Elaine May do their best to wring some kind of character based amusement from the film, it stalls at every turn. After planning to rob a bank by tunneling from a nearby shop, those original plans are scrapped when the store itself (turned it into a cookie shop as a cover for the digging by Ulmman’s Frenchy) becomes a goldmine. You’d think that premise itself was a goldmine, but Allen can’t even pan a few nuggets from it. As the story scraps several characters while it focuses on Ray (Allen) and Frenchy’s new rich lifestyle, it just totally dries up. Allen’s own acting and line delivery drags down everything around it, but I can’t even blame him for that – the lines he gave himself to read are terrible. A very poor effort by a previously very consistent director.
No Country for Old Men
2007 USA. Directors: Joel & Ethan Coen. Starring: Tommy Lee Jones, Josh Brolin, Javier Bardem, Woody Harrelson, Kelly MacDonald.
So it has been nearly five years now, the dust has settled, time to re-evaluate No Country for Old Men outside of the euphoria it met in 2007. I am not a big Coen Brothers fan, but when they get it right, they really get it right. I think perhaps one of the reasons for success with this film is the Cormac McCarthy script, which remained nearly verbatim devout to the novel. Rewatching it I can say definitively that No Country for Old Men is a fucking classic, and deserves to be mentioned alongside greats like Taxi Driver or Pulp Fiction or The Conversation. Everything is working in this film, the writing, the directing, the casting, the sound design, the costumes, everything, everything, everything. This kind of story has been told countless times but never as good as this, Chigur is perfect as the embodiment of evil, a flesh and blood terminator, and Llewelyn is the quintessential everyman whose speck of conscience becomes his undoing. Everything about this film feels timeless. And it’s still one of the best looking blu-rays I have watched.
1966 USA. Director: Howard Hawks. Starring: John Wayne, Robert Mitchum, James Caan, Charlene Holt.
Howard Hawks and John Wayne made essentially the same western three times, the prototype and best of the three being Rio Bravo, one of my all time favorite straight-up genre films. El Dorado was the second kick at the can, using the same sets at Tucson Studios and generally the same character types and story: two old timers and a young wannabe protecting a sheriff’s office from undesirables wanting to break out a prisoner. The movies are so similar that when catching part of El Dorado on tv in passing it took well over ten minutes and the appearance of Robert Mitchum in the Dean Martin role before I realized it was a different movie. It does at times feel like some kind of cinematic experiment, like Von Trier’s obstructions or Van Sant’s shot for shot remake of Psycho, but in the end it is clear that Hawks did it as a lark, and in this respect more like Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Twelve, playing lovingly with celebrity and genre like a kid with new toys. El Dorado is not quite up to Rio Bravo standards, though the addition of Mitchum and a young James Caan do raise the stakes, at least from a modern perspective, on the quality of celebrity being tossed around. The film in large protions is ghosting what came before it, the original was tighter, better realized than this follow-up. The same joy in bickering carries through, the Hawks ‘Western’ is distinctly unconcerned with taking its thematic elements too seriously at a time when so many were. Here it is all about guys shooting their guns and mouths off, the occassional sexist or racist aside, but nothing overtly mean-spirited (likewise, when people get shot there is scarcely any blood). It is the hanging out Western, but unfortunately this time around, no musical number. Still, it is a lot of fun to be back in this world again.
2011 USA. Director: Bennett Miller. Starring: Brad Pitt, Jonah Hill, Phillip Seymour Hoffman.
Even better than I remember on this second watch. The quick-witted dialogue and genuinely funny moments take statistics and make them fun and hilarious – but without over selling the hand. What struck me most on this second viewing was the artful creativity employed by this relatively new director. Maybe the studio pulled things back a little bit or messed with some of the editing, but I am amazed at how well the silence and aural cuts work here. It’s jarring in a good way; using minimal soundtrack and excising the foley completely when the scene calls for reflection. It could use a trim in the length department – probably getting rid of most of the needless, domestic aspects of the film would help. Otherwise this is certainly The Social Network for 2011 (I actually like Moneyball a bit better).