Tuesday, September 7, 2010

#181 The Big Chill (1983)


Director: Lawrence Kasdan

Cast: Tom Berenger, Kevin Kline, Glenn Close, Jeff Goldblum, William Hurt, Meg Tilly, JoBeth Williams

Seven U of M college grads of the 60s are re-united again under one roof when one of their former buddies unexpectedly commits suicide. Harold, Sarah, Michael, Karen, Meg, Nick, and Sam have all reached their mid-life crises-- divorced, bored in marriage, drugs, adultery, lonely, childless-- you name it, one of them is dealing with it.

They haven't seen each other in years, but it's obvious they have some unfinished business with one another: arguments to resolve, sexual tension to extinguish, truths to be told. Without a flashback and with minimum sentimental reminiscing, this film manages to express the ache of nostalgia in a simplistic way.

At times it is humorous and other times tragic (but isn't that how nostalgia itself works as well?), the film brings to life some interesting ideas about what to do once you realize you've left your youthful happiness in the dust.

This is something that I, personally, have been dealing with already only having graduated from college a few months ago. I have to imagine how one day much later, after I've married my own corporate suit and produced babies, it would hurt very much to suddenly be walloped on the head with a reminder of my more carefree past.

It was a nice, albeit pointedly 80s film-- some parts dragged, some characters' stories seemed a bit... much. But I appreciate it nonetheless, and that includes its 60s soundtrack.

Monday, September 6, 2010

#180 Bonnie and Clyde (1967)


Director: Arthur Penn

Cast: Warren Beatty, Faye Dunaway, Michael J. Pollard, Gene Hackman, Estelle Parsons, Denver Pyle, Dub Taylor, Gene Wilder

Some day they'll go down together.
They'll bury them side-by-side.
To few it'll be grief,
to the law a relief,
but it's death for Bonnie and Clyde.
-Bonnie Parker, 1933

Bonnie Parker (Dunaway) and Clyde Barrow (Beatty) were real-life American depression-era outlaws who became criminal celebrities during the 'public enemy' craze between 1931 and 1934. This film adaptation of their story is comedic, sultry, fashionable, and action-packed, and it stands today as a true classic in the genre of American outlaw films.

This young unmarried couple leads a gang of criminals around the country, robbing banks, grocery stores, gas stations, and stealing cars all along the way. While they manage to stay free, this doomed couple is aware that their luck is bound to run out soon. They suffer from being sensationalized in the media, and consequently, pinned with many crimes they didn't commit. However, they were responsible for numerous murders... so don't feel too bad for them.

This film is often referred to as a slapstick comedy, but I didn't see that so much. Much more notably it was a film about sex and violence, as this was one of the first films to be made after a significant "loosening" of the censorship rules. Estelle Parsons won an Oscar for her performance as Buck Barrow's (Clyde's brother) wife, and this film also was Gene Wilder's first on-screen appearance. I actually have to admit that I would've probably given this movie another star if it weren't for Parsons' performance-- I found it almost intolerably annoying. Of course, that IS the point of her character, but it was excessive and ruined some key scenes of the film for me. Dunaway is a gorgeous Bonnie, and her costuming was truly outlaw-French chic. Beatty as Clyde sometimes is almost a toonce too... hunky... to be believable, but I still think this is an amazing classic.

It stands as a clear predecessor to an entire genre of great crime films, especially The Godfather which would follow in 1972.

Yes please.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

#179 Broadcast News (1987)


Director: James L. Brooks

Cast: Holly Hunter, Albert Brooks, William Hurt, Robert Prosky, Lois Chiles, Joan Cusack, Jack Nicholson, Peter Hackes

Holly Hunter plays Jane Craig, a network news producer who throws her whole life into her job--a woman whose neurosis is her greatest and worst asset. The two men in her life are two news anchors-- one is her best friend, Aaron (Brooks), who is both experienced and talented. The other is a handsome, showy newcomer, Tom (Hurt), who both infuriates and romantically intrigues Jane.

The three of them mixed together in one workplace equals a hectic, high-stress environment, and Jane struggles to deal with the pressure of juggling the two relationships. On one hand, her relationship with Tom frees her from the stressful, highly ethical and tightly-wound life she has created for herself, but on the other hand, he also represents everything she has hated and fought against. Jane cares about honesty, accuracy, and relevance with the news above all else (even her social life), and Tom believes to get farther in the business, you just gotta dress it up a bit.

Where those two clash, conversely, Jane and Aaron meet on level ground--both are dedicated to the same causes and have shared a long working relationship with one another. Aaron being in love Jane complicates the love triangle, and as he warns her against Tom-- is he doing it because he's looking out for her, or is he doing it because he's jealous?

The love triangle was a bit typical, the events were a bit predictable, and the high-stress workplace seemed overdone and fake. I thought Holly Hunter's character felt way over the top-- Ok, Ok, we get it. She's good at her job. She's neurotic. I don't necessarily think the error was entirely in the acting either. It seems like every intense moment was over-written and over-emphasized. It's not that I don't appreciate movies that present things very plain and simple when the characters' personalities call for that method of showcasing emotion, but I think to create realism within complicated relationships, the subtleties of the characters are extremely important. The characters of this particular film were too busy flailing and nagging for me notice anything else about them.

The film is, however, a comedy. And perhaps what I'm finding as redundant is supposed to be comedic... c'est la vie. I just found myself consistently more irritated than humored.

Why two stars then? I give it two stars because it wasn't a total abomination. For me, two stars usually translates to: "It had its moments."
In the end, it was an easy-to-watch popcorn 80s film that some people would really enjoy. Just not my particular cup o' tea.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

#178 Belle de Jour (1967)


Director: Luis Buñuel

Cast: Catherine Deneuve, Jean Sorel, Michel Piccoli, Geneviéve Page, Pierre Clémenti, Francoise Fabian

Séverine Serizy (Deneuve) is a beautiful, elegant upperclass Parisian housewife who is happily married to a handsome surgeon named Pierre (Sorel). The problem, however, (and there always is some problem, isn't there?) is that she cannot bring herself to be intimate with him. They sleep in separate beds even after a year of being married--Séverine is cold, but not cruel.

In her mind, she drifts off into violent, fetishtic sexual fantasies to satisfy her needs and urges, and the unknowing, patient Pierre just politely kisses her and awaits the day he will get to be intimate with his wife. Séverine's fantasies, however, become real when she begins to gain an interest in the happenings of the local brothels after she hears a woman that she knows has begun working for one.

Séverine begins slipping away to the house of Madame Anais to work as a prostitute under the name Belle de Jour (Beautiful Day), named for the fact that she only works afternoons while her husband is at his job. She begins to feel satisfaction, and her confidence blossoms. She begins to see and understand Pierre's "man-urges" after dealing with bizarre and sexually aggressive clientele. It's only after one of her clients begins to step into her married life that things start getting messy.

One of the great things about this film is the way we get to wander in and out of surreal interludes into Séverine's fantasies without warning or explanation. We hear cats meowing in the distance or see the child version of Séverine moving throughout scenes where the main character experiences these day dreams. The transitions are smooth, but easy to follow, and they enlighten a lot of what Séverine is going through in her sexually-complicated emotional sphere--things that would be hard to explain on screen other than through dialogue.

I think Belle de Jour stands as a bit of a cultural landmark as well in the realm of erotic film-making. Despite the extremely steamy subject matter, the director didn't need to show nudity OR sex to make us understand how much of it was actually happening. Half of the titillation, of course, is experienced through suggestion or what is left unsaid. By letting the viewer fill in the gaps, we are able to experience the eroticism while still getting a sense of the subversive nature of the plot.

An amazingly interesting theory about this subtle surrealist masterpiece is... what if the prostitution situation was all just fantasy and day dream as well? What if it was another erotic vision of Séverine's, complete with her aggressive, I'd-die-for-you client lover? Without giving too much of the film away, I'd also think that the final state of Pierre gives support to this interesting theory-- in the end, he is stripped of the ability to act on his 'man-urges', isnt' he? While part of me thinks this is an interesting final place for him to end up in a Séverine fantasy (she is able to have her true love but is also free from the pressure of intimacy!), I also think this disproves the same theory! I do, on some level, think that Séverine uses prostitution as a way of understanding her husband and bringing herself closer to him. The two ideas conflict greatly, and so I'd be interested in knowing what other people think about all this.

At any rate, a very interesting and approachable film, even with its somewhat saucy subject matter.

#177 Ultimo Tango a Parigi [Last Tango in Paris] (1972)


Director: Bernardo Bertolucci

Cast: Marlon Brando, Maria Schneider, Maria Michi, Giovanna Galietti, Gitt Magrini

"Go get the butter."

Last Tango in Paris is the story of Paul (Brando), an American businessman living in Paris whose wife has just committed suicide. Those are the facts. But the truth about this character is that he has been reduced so greatly by his sorrow that all that remains left of his ability to express himself are the banest, cruelest, and most animalistic urges.

When Jeanne (Schneider) goes apartment-hunting for herself and her fiance, she walks into an empty, dingy apartment and finds Paul sitting in the dark. When he begins to rape her, she casually accepts, and soon the two have made a deal to continue to meet there regularly-- no names, no feelings, no questions.

The brutal, anonymous love-making of Paul and Jeanne is sensual but cruel, and it could be argued that it is one of the most raw portrayals of emotion ever on screen. How appropriate was Brando's casting in this role-- I can't even begin to express. The ferocity of his method acting makes Paul's character undeniably (and frighteningly) real. Whether Brando was an obnoxious person doesn't change my opinion about his ability to bring a character to life. When he acts, you can actually sense his character's thoughts and emotions boiling right behind his face. I felt this was so necessary for Paul-- after all, he's the hero of a movie with the only moving plotline being his slowly growing grief.

A lot of controversy was stirred up by the amount sex in this film at the time of its release, and even more criticism was thrown at the director for showing Schneider naked many, many times but never Brando. It's true, it can feel a bit debasing or humiliating to the female, but that's exactly the point of this film-- that was their relationship. She was an object, a vessel, and she allowed herself to be that outlet for the volcanic, hungry needs of Paul.

The greatness of this on-screen relationship is the honesty that is presented through what they choose not to say. The way two people can be using each other simultaneously for very different things. Or the way that one person can allow another work something out through them.

This isn't one of my favorite films, I can tell, and it never will be. I can say, however, that I have tremendous respect for it. This is one of those films where the portrayed emotions are so overwhelming that you almost bow down to the film-maker for just finally getting it all out into the open. A little bit less weight is on our shoulders. Or at least that's how I felt.

Friday, September 3, 2010

#176 Thelma & Louise (1991)


Director: Ridley Scott

Cast: Susan Sarandon, Geena Davis, Harvey Keitel, Michael Madsen, Brad Pitt, Chris McDonald

What some might casually write-off as a feminist-feel-gooder actually has a lot more guts than just that. Thelma and Louise are two completely ordinary Arkansas women, both a bit doomed by their discontent with their own lives. Thelma (Davis) is a housewife who tolerates her rug salesman husband's tantrums, and Louise pours coffee at a roadside diner for a living. Both agree to head off for the weekend and 'let their hair down.' Thelma even opts to tell her husband in a note--too terrified to speak with him about it.

Like typical chicks, they loosen up after a couple of roadside bar margaritas, and Thelma succumbs to lusty temptation by a handsome cowboy who asks her to dance. This takes a horrific turn, however, when he attempts to rape her in the parking lot later that same evening. Louise comes to save the day, and the two end up being to blame for a violent outburst that ends the man's life.

Thus begins the convertible scenes against a desert sunset, country music on the radio, hair blowing in the wind... and that's fine. As viewers, we expect it, and we even want it for these women. This film has all the great traditions of a roadie film, but it packs a few surprise punches as well. Chick flicks take something like this down a road of haphazard goofy scenes, but this film takes those opportunities to have fun.. but with real heart. As the two dig themselves further and further into the hole-- now Wanted in three states-- they seem to be doing something not just for themselves but for all down-trodden, hopeless women.

Personally, I thought it was brilliant. I am the first to stick my nose up at bad romantic and/or feminist comedies-- well, at least modern day ones. I found this movie to be gutsy and strong, while still showcasing realistic 'oh shit' moments and mistakes. It has something that previously in cinema really was only shown through male characters, and for that reason it felt fresh and exciting. Not to mention, I love when films get you rooting for the bad guy... err... girls!

Upon reading some reviews of the film from the time of its initial release, I found Roger Ebert's critique of the ending to be exceptionally interesting and spot-on. I quote:
I would have rated the movie at four stars, instead of three and a half, except for one shot, the last shot before the titles begin. This is the catharsis shot, the payoff, the moment when Thelma and Louise arrive at the truth that their whole journey has been pointed toward, and Scott and his editor, Thom Noble, botch it. It's a freeze frame that fades to white, which is fine, except it does so with unseemly haste, followed immediately by a vulgar carnival of distractions: flashbacks to the jolly faces of the two women, the roll of the end credits, an upbeat country song.

I agree with his critique in citing this as a bit gutless for a movie with so much piss and vinegar. The film was given a brilliant pay-off, but in the editing execution, they chickened out. Indeed, a damn shame.

Still a great movie in my book though. A smart, but easy feel-good for BOTH men and women.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

#175 His Girl Friday (1940)


Director: Howard Hawks

Cast: Cary Grant, Rosalind Russell, Ralph Bellamy, Gene Lockhart, Porter Hall, Ernest Truex

Another slap-stick Cary Grant romantic comedy-- you'd think they'd get old, but they really don't.

Hildy Johnson (Russell) is an ex-newspaper reporter who has come back to the office to tell her ex-husband and former boss, Walter Burns (Grant), that she is moving to Albany to remarry. Burns just isn't having it, and he decides to pull every trick in the book to get her back on the job and back in his life.

Suckering her into working on a story about a murderer on death row, Grant manages to even surprise himself with the complex web that keeps Hildy post-poning her train tickets to Albany. Things get even hairier when the story (and the murderer) end up right in the newsroom between the two.

It's certainly nothing surprising, but it has that charm that just screams "Great Classic Film." Cary Grant bumbles off fast-paced, witty lines to keep the woman around, much like he did in The Philadelphia Story that same year in Hollywood. Although I can't say I thought it to be anything ground-breaking or thought-provoking, I will say that this movie is a great popcorn, feel-good classic... with enough twists and turns to keep you captivated until the end. A delightful one. I'd like to call this a good date movie, but I think that is just exposing my sad, deranged fantasy of finding a man that appreciates classic Hollywood like I do.

#174 Crumb (1994)


Director: Terry Zwigoff

Cast: Robert Crumb, Charles Crumb, Maxon Crumb, Aline Kominsky, Robert Hughes, Martin Miller, Don Donahue, Dana Morgan, Trina Robbins

I think there is a lot to say about Robert Crumb, his family, their lives, and his work, and this movie presents a lot of questionable statements, images, and thoughts. It confirmed (and yet made me suspicious of) many of the things I thought were wrong or right about people in America. I think it presents a lot of questions about things that many of us are already busy questioning in our own lives and moral character-- and so in this tiny little movie review, I won't attempt at cracking the big-picture code.

So instead, I am going to try to stay focused on Crumb for its value as a film, and not relish on Robert Crumb's value or meaning as a man.

This film is a portrait that makes no attempt at setting a stage to present "the character" of Robert Crumb. He is simply shown as he is, and obviously how he always will be-- and it's also obvious the film crew probably didn't have much of a choice anyway.

For those who don't know who Robert Crumb is, he is an American illustrator, most well-known for his involvement in the underground comics of the 1960s and 70s-- showcasing a twisted, satirical, and subversive view of popular American culture. He is perhaps most well-known for including such deeply personal and passionate expressions of all his most inner-demons (most notably sexual perversion) in his work. You might wonder how a film could manage to reveal more about a man who has already bared-all to the public in his work.

I think the big reveal comes in including the cast of people surrounding Crumb. It's obvious that these are the people that most often illicit his seemingly nervous laugh, and it's also around these people that Crumb seems to be able to verbalize some things that might only ever have been spoken of on paper. Despite the controversially claimed "disturbed" nature of his work, the film-makers managed to show Crumb in his familial context-- showing that he is actually 'the sane one of the family.' The film includes his past girlfriends and wives, his two brothers (Charles and Maxon), and his mother, and the film seems to be just as much about them as it is about the artist. Through these people and his artwork, you sense you are getting the full story, and that Crumb's sarcastic, witty remarks perhaps are a carefully-tuned defense mechanism.

Robert Crumb's art isn't for everyone-- and the film finds critics on both sides, sure. But as a film, I don't think anyone can deny the complexity and brilliance of the story. It manages to shock you without shoving anything down your throat. It also manages to take a lot of things we thought we understood (or at least understood that we were scared of) and brings them bubbling to the surface of our conscience. "Is that really wrong?" "It makes me uncomfortable, but does that mean it shouldn't be?" Of course, all of this serious thinking is peppered in to a pretty straight-forward style documentary about a group of people who are so unusual that we can't help but try to use every ounce of ourselves to simply understand.

I think the greatest thing about this film is that it presents deeply complex and dark themes in the most neutral, you-decide-for-yourself light possible. It enables conversation and an intelligent audience, and for that, I commend the film-makers greatly.