Tuesday, February 25, 2014

The Ice Harvest: Something To Do With Death (R.I.P. Harold Ramis)

The sad and untimely passing of Harold Ramis yesterday exacerbated my need to revisit his 2005 film The Ice Harvest. The film, shot for a very modest budget, flopped in its initial release, but has gained admirers in the years since. At the time, it struck me as a solid comedy with more than the usual on its mind, but in recent years, I’ve come to think of it as a stone-cold masterpiece. Maybe that’s why it was the first film I thought of when I heard that Ramis had died – not Ghostbusters, not Caddyshack, not even the wondrous Groundhog Day. Or maybe it was something else – something to do with the film itself, which is one of the most haunted and despairing comedies I’ve ever seen.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

The Wolf of Wall Street: Performance, Transaction, and the Big Sell

Martin Scorsese loves to watch Leonardo DiCaprio. I guess we’ve known that for some time, but it never quite hit me as it did during The Wolf of Wall Street. We can argue all day over whether this is an attempt to remake Goodfellas or whatever (it isn’t), but there’s one thing that’s pretty clear to me: This is as much one of Scorsese’s concert docs (Shine a Light, The Last Waltz, etc.) as it is one of his narrative epics. Jordan Belfort, the real-life “Wolf of Wall Street,” didn’t just become famous for his crooked financial practices; he was also renowned for his revival-like, inspirational speeches full of blustery bullshit to his workers. He sells stocks with messianic fervor; then he sells selling stocks with messianic fervor. It’s a perfect subject on which to hitch an extended DiCaprio concert. Half the movie is just him performing in front of people, and much of the rest of it is people reacting to him. There are even a couple of scenes one could call dance numbers.

(Spoiler alert for the rest of the review, to the extent that there can be spoilers for this movie...)

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Inside Llewyn Davis: "Like King Midas's idiot brother"

A mesmerizing, haunted red herring of a movie, the Coen Brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis is full of glancing blows and half-hidden truths. Every once in a while some kind of meaning or pattern emerges for just a brief shimmering second and then disappears from view, like the cats that keep slipping away from our lonely, dour protagonist. But if this beautiful film seems unnaturally elusive, there’s a good reason for that: The real story is happening somewhere else.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Five Things I Liked about Spike Lee's Remake of Oldboy

Spike Lee’s remake of Park Chan-wook's Oldboy is getting trashed left and right and flopping with audiences. But sue me, I kind of liked it. And while I love, love, love the original to death and still vastly prefer it to this one, I figured it might be worth noting down some things about Lee's film that I thought worked. It ain’t exactly Losey’s remake of M (though let it be noted that that film too was much hated for many decades before its reputation slowly began to repair) but I think this new Oldboy is worthwhile. I’d certainly be interested to see the rumored longer version some day.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Captain Phillips: "Relax. It's just business."

The real-life piracy thriller Captain Phillips opens with what feels at first like an inelegant bit of exposition. Preparing at home to embark on his next voyage, Captain Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks) checks the itinerary on his computer for his date of departure, and his destination: Mombasa, Kenya. You may find yourself asking: Wouldn’t the captain of a major cargo ship know where he’s headed well before the day he leaves? You may even have similar thoughts a couple of scenes later, as Captain Phillips listens to one of his crew members tick off the contents of their container ship, the Maersk Alabama. Again, shouldn’t he already know all this?

But what seems early on like awkward filmmaking convention soon reveals itself as the first hint that Captain Phillips, for all its expert, armrest-tearing suspense, is about more than just a ship taken hostage by Somali pirates. “Companies want things faster and cheaper…You gotta be strong to survive out there,” Phillips says in another early scene, and it becomes clear that, for all his protestations of strength, he is a mere cog in the engine of global commerce. It doesn’t matter if he knows where he’s going, or what he’s carrying. But soon enough, he and his men, speeding through international waters off the horn of Africa, are being pursued and boarded by a ragged band of pirates led by a gaunt, intense teenager named Muse (Somali-American actor Barkhad Abdi, in a remarkable debut performance). “Relax, Captain. Just business,” the young pirate tells the middle-aged sailor. He’s right.

Friday, August 2, 2013

'80s Action Week: The Empire Strikes Back (Irvin Kershner, 1980)

Okay, it’s hard to do five posts on the best action films of the 1980s and try and sneak in anything remotely surprising in there. (I guess the closest I got to was yesterday’s post on RoboCop, if only because most folks who know me know I’m fairly cool on Verhoeven.) And this, of course, is another no-brainer. It’s certainly the best of the Star Wars films (though a couple of the prequels are better than people like to give them credit for being). But it bears looking into, still: Why does The Empire Strikes Back continue to work so well?

Thursday, August 1, 2013

'80s Action Week: Robocop (Paul Verhoeven, 1987)

Paul Verhoeven, I still don’t entirely know what to do with you. Yes, you were one of the signature action auteurs of the ‘80s and ‘90s, with films like Total Recall, Basic Instinct, and Starship Troopers to your name, and that reputation is still solid, even though individual films may wax and wane in influence and estimation over the years. Total Recall at the time was thought of as the kind of soulless action flick Hollywood churned out on a regular basis; it’s aged now into a weirdly personal and very, very surreal fantasy, a consciously outsize macho wish fulfillment dream for the Age of Schwarzenegger. Basic Instinct was a bit better liked, mainly for its sleaze; I still like it, mainly for its sleaze. Starship Troopers wasn’t a huge popular hit but a certain subset of critics loved it because of its constantly self-aware, bright neon meta-meta-ness; I never really got it. Along the way there was Showgirls, which I haven’t been able to like even ironically, and Hollow Man, which is exciting and insane in equal measure. And then there were the Dutch films, made before he came to the U.S., many of which are excellent and all of which are idiosyncratic in their own little ways. Anyway, I find him fascinating, but Paul Verhoeven, it goes without saying, is far from my favorite director.

But he did have one absolutely perfect movie.  One film where his signature fascination with gore and gratuitous violence really paid off thematically, while his natural perversity made for an ideal match with the story. Certainly among Verhoeven’s American genre films, RoboCop is his masterpiece. Who else but this director would take what could have been a fairly standard tale of a cop who is turned into an indestructible, crime-fighting cyborg, and then underlined its utter strangeness in such a way that still did justice to its narrative? With overtones of both Brazil and The TerminatorRoboCop is equal parts satire, tragedy, grand guignol gorefest, and sensitive human drama, and it manages to be a parody of itself even as it delivers the goods. (Put another way: It’s the movie everyone seems to think Starship Troopers is.)