October 30, 2005

The Dude abides

I watched the Collector's Edition version of the The Big Lebowski and while I still feel the same way about the film, I have to say the intro they add to this DVD edition is incredibly funny. Especially if you waste a lot of time in the world of films and DVDs. As for the movie itself, the review I wrote quite a while ago still holds. It goes like this:

It's taken me quite a while to get around to seeing The Big Lebowski, but I finally have. (I seem to be on a Coen brothers thing this week.) My gut response? It's kind of boring largely, I think, because it's more a pastiche of scenes than a coherent whole.

This is deliberate, part of the movie's style. But for me, it works against it. It's one of those ideas that is better in thought than in practice.

In talking about it on the DVD's featurette, the Coens refer to this aspect when they discuss it in terms of a Raymond Chandler story, like The Big Sleep. I can see what they mean when they say this, but I just don't think it works.

Part of the problem seems to be that they've used this "confusing plot" idea as an excuse to try interesting visuals. While those visuals certainly are cool, you can't help wondering what the hell they have to do with anything. Just as songs disrupt the narrative flow in some musicals, so these visuals disrupt the flow in The Big Lebowski.

As usual with the Coen brothers, the story idea is very engaging and quirky. Jeff Bridges is The Dude, Jeff Lebowski, an unemployed doper who spends most of his time in his bathrobe doing dope, drinking White Russians and bowling.

One day he comes home and encounters two dimwitted gangster types, someone's "muscle," who demand money they say is owed to their boss. They rough up The Dude, threaten him and urinate on his carpet. Unfortunately, they have have confused him with another Jeff Lebowski, The Big Lebowski.

Thus do The Dude's adventures begin as he tries to get his carpet replaced by the other Lebowski.

Explaining the plot is pointless. Let's simply say The Dude encounters a rich, handicapped old man who wants him as a bag man because his young, promiscuous wife (who appears in porn films) has been kidnapped. The Dude meets pornographers, German nihilists and assorted other characters along the way.

He's aided by some friends, most notably by Walter (John Goodman) a Vietnam veteran with issues.

There are a host of funny, clever scenes in the film. But as mentioned, nothing hangs together very well. The movie looks great but often loses its pacing for the sake of cleverness, either in terms of getting an interesting looking visual or, in some cases, a characterization that works against it.

For example, Bridges' character is generally stoned or otherwise unable to articulate what he is wants to say. While it's appropriate for the character, the characterization slows the movie, clogs it. It's an idea (this kind of man in this kind of situation) that likely looks great on paper but, on film, doesn't quite click.

I suppose this all points to a larger problem, the lack of a narrative arc. The characters, by and large, are the same people at the end as they were at the beginning. So it doesn't ever go anywhere.

In the end, while there is no denying there have been funny moments, The Big Lebowski isn't satisfying. It has the feel of a young person showing off how clever he can be. There is a lot of style but not a great deal of substance.

I found it more frustrating than anything else though while watching it I also had the sense it was probably a film the Coens had get out of their system in order to move on. In movies that followed The Big Lebowski the same cleverness still appears but, in those films, it serves the movies they make rather than itself.

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October 27, 2005

Yes, I watched Titanic again

Well, Titanic is out now in a 3-disc DVD "Special Collector's Edition," so I felt obligated. But I'm not objecting.

All the things the film's detractors list about why they don't like it are, I think, why it is such a good movie. Maybe not great, but very, very good. Yes, it's sentimental, romantic and very much a film of cinematic artifice, but that's what makes it so good. (Remember, those same things can be said, and should be said, of Casablanca.)

The film's popularity speaks to its merit. The real question is, what is it about movies like this that resonates with audiences?

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October 22, 2005

Recent viewings: Garbo, John Wayne, Batman

I've seen a lot of different movies in the last few weeks but I haven't had time to scribble much about them. For instance, I picked up Garbo - The Signature Collection a while ago. That's the one with something like twelve movies (this includes three silent films from the late 1920's.)

Most of them are pretty good. I especially like Ninotchka (directed by Ernst Lubitsch, 1939). Very funny and I like the way the movie kind of uses the Garbo image (silent, aloof) as a part of the primary comedy. Garbo is great in it by the way.

Anna Christie (1931) ... well, I didn't like that one so much. In fact, I stopped watching after about 40 minutes because it was painful. This was her first "talkie." In fact, I think that's how they promoted it: "Garbo Talks!" Good grief, does she ever. That's all anyone does in this thing - long, long scenes of people sitting around talking. Anyway ... not the best film in the collection.

Camille (1936), on the other hand ... I really liked that one. Sentimental, yes. Romantic, yes. But a really good movie, none the less. And Garbo is extremely fetching in this one.

Other than Garbo, I watched John Wayne's Hondo (1953) a few days ago. It was released as a Special Collector's Edition at the same time as McLintock! - see the earlier post. Both of these films, by the way, were at a great price - $12.00 each when I picked them up. Of the two, I think my sentimental favourite has to be McLintock! but, honestly, Hondo is a much better film. As someone else mentioned, it has some similarities to Shane, another 1953 film.

Wayne is quintessentially John Wayne here with his North American machismo and all, and this film is one of the few movies I've actually seen that had the old Hollywood western cowboys and Indians thing going on (though, for the period, the First Nations people are portrayed with more sympathy than you might expect). Overall, it's a good western. (Of course, if you don't like westerns this is probably not your cup of tea.)

And let me mention one other movie ... Batman Begins (2005). Yes, it's very good. Of all the Batman movies I've seen, it's easily the best and definitely one of the best of the very popular glut of comic book movies that have been released. As usual with these kinds of movies, it works so well because they concentrate on character and story. But this movie reminds me a lot of the first Spiderman movie (though it's much better than that film).

The first half of the film is great. The second half, good but not great. The reason? Once he becomes Batman and the bad guys enter into things and the heroics start, it loses me (as did the first Spiderman). In other words, the man becoming the hero is far more interesting than the hero as the hero.

However, in this case, while Batman Begins loses some steam in the second half it doesn't lose a lot of it (unlike the first Spiderman).

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October 16, 2005

McLintock! - Wayne and O'Hara at odds

I watched McLintock! (1963) last night. It’s not the greatest movie in the John Wayne canon, but you know, I’ve always liked it.

From what I’ve seen online, it doesn’t rate that high with many people, but then it’s not the most western of westerns. It’s essentially a comedy – one that is sort of a John Wayne version of Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew.

The movie sort of works off and on. There are about three big set pieces (like the mud fight and the inevitable confrontation between John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara). They work pretty well, but some of what goes on in between drags.

Still, I remember seeing this when I was young and loving it. I always like Wayne and O’Hara and while this is a far cry from The Quiet Man, it’s a fun film to watch. At least for me.

It’s a bit like Hatari! (another movie whose title ends in an exclamation mark). The story isn’t terribly important. Like a favourite TV show, you like it because of the characters – in this case, the usual Wayne and O-Hara characters. They’re fun to watch. You can’t help but like them.

Interesting how much brawling goes on in Wayne films. (By the way, while not a great movie, I'd definitely watch McLintock! before watching that other recent DVD release, The High and the Mighty.)

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October 15, 2005

The western - Costner's Open Range

I saw a reference to Open Range over on Purgatorian and it reminded me of how much I like the movie. Back when I reviewed it, I gave it four stars out of five. I may watch it again tonight - seems to me in retrospect I was a bit stingy with that assessment. Here's what I wrote back then:

Everytime someone makes a western numerous people comment that the western is dead. We're to take this as a film given. Personally, I'm sick to death of hearing this. If the form is dead, why do so many people still like them?

With Kevin Costner's Open Range, the comments I see over and over are something to the effect, "The western is dead but this is a really good movie." Huh?

I think there is a belief the western is kaput partly because there is a superficial understanding of what the western is. Some commentators confuse the presence of cowboy hats, horses and guns with what constitutes a western. A western, however, is a mythic morality tale where, quite often, there are cowboy hats, horses and guns.

But there are westerns set in outer space (like many Star Trek episodes) and westerns set on African safaris (like Hatari!). Some are set against backdrops of war (like Tears of the Sun).

If westerns seem "dead" it is only that we appear to be in a period of cultural fog where many of us have become so cynical we've abandoned any attempt to think morally. But thematically, despite Pulp Fiction and its knockoffs, western morality tales remain popular because they continue to address something we struggle with.

Open Range articulates this struggle well. While it may not be the greatest western ever made, it's a very good one and captures the essence of the western theme, often by reiterations of standard western scenes.

A pair of free grazers (Robert Duvall and Kevin Costner) are driving their cattle over the open range. But the open range of the American west is increasingly less open as land is fenced off by ranchers who are claiming it. The west is filling up; the last frontier is fading.

They come across a rancher who is particularly intent on getting rid of free grazers. He runs a town, keeping everyone under his dictatorial and greedy thumb. In the end, there is a showdown (in the best western tradition).

It sounds conventional because it is, but this is what the best westerns do. They don't stand out because of their innovation but because of how well they articulate the core western myths.

Films like these get at the essential paradox of America, "the land of the free." The more people seek the wide open spaces of America, the more people move into them to be free, the less free America becomes. In westerns, the most free people are also the most lonely. Their loneliness can only be alleviated by joining a community but this also means they are less free. Freedom is conditioned by the presence of others.

We also see, as in Open Range, a desire for law and order. The more people there are, the more constrained our freedom is. The question becomes, who will impose those constraints? The community, with shared values, or an individual who is more powerful than we are as individuals?

As Open Range plays out, the free grazers played by Duvall and Costner recognize the freedom they had is disappearing. Now, they have to make a choice. Knuckle under to the demands of the wealthy rancher, or become the instruments of the community's law and order?

Westerns also seem to be about maturing - growing up, to be blunt. Both as a country and as individuals. The freedom enjoyed in youth fades over time because it becomes increasingly isolated and lonely. At some point, it has to be put aside for some agreed upon constraints in order to become part of the group.

Open Range captures all this in a film that beautifully evokes the best aspects of the genre. Unlike other recent movies (like The Quick and the Dead), it doesn't appear to be interested in commenting on westerns in a modern, deconstructionist kind of way. It aspires to be a western and only a western. It keeps things simple, and this is also a key to the best films of this kind. They aren't about movies; they are about myths.

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October 10, 2005

The Frank Oz comedies

I've always liked the comedies of Frank Oz. In fact, I would say that of the films I watch repeatedly, Frank Oz comedies are among the ones I most watch over and over. In a sense, they are a kind of cinematic comfort food. I always enjoy them and I always feel good after having watched them.

His comedies are a bit deceptive. They seem too nice (whatever that means). They seem perhaps too slick, or too something, because they have a pleasant Hollywood gloss to them, which gives them a feeling of unreality.

But that's really why they work the way they do. They aren't realistic and they aren't intended to be. They're movies about interesting, and funny, characters in absurd situations.

What I like most about his comedies, however, is that they are funny without being mean-spirited, as many comedies tend to be. It isn't the humour of a misanthrope but rather the humour of someone who finds life and people to be wonderful, but also wonderfully ridiculous.

Still, there is a certain (if minimal) element of darkness, even anger in them, but it is kept in abeyance. It’s never allowed to overwhelm the films; it simply serves as a root element from which to spring and inform the comedy. (An example would be In & Out, with intolerance at its core, or the satire of The Stepford Wives – not the best Oz film but certainly better than some gave it credit for.)

Ultimately, Frank Oz comedies are delightful confections that seem to laugh at us while loving us, and loving us especially for those things that make Oz laugh.

Comedies directed by Frank Oz:

- The Stepford Wives (2004)
- Bowfinger (1999)
- In & Out (1997)
- What About Bob? (1991)
- Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (1988)

(Of the above, I think my favourite would have to be Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, which I've watched so many times I've lost count.)

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October 2, 2005

The Hours - I watch it yet again

The Hours - Nicole Kidman as Virginia WoolfI loved The Hours. I gave it five stars out of five. And I watched it again on Thursday so I thought I'd post the review I did of it a while ago (with one minor correction):

I don't know if it's necessary to have studied English literature, or to be familiar with Virginia Woolf and her works, but it certainly helps when watching the movie The Hours. I think someone unfamiliar would still enjoy the film but whether it's as accessible, I don't know.

It's especially helpful (I think) to have read Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway since the film is, in some ways, an improvisation from the story.

The movie is wonderfully, and complexly, structured and this is one of the great appeals of the film. As it progresses, you begin to see how the various elements relate. In a sense, it is something of a mystery (though not in terms of genre). You get hints and clues as the film unfolds.

The movie is three stories, related and interwoven. There is the Virginia Woolf story (Nicole Kidman) which focuses on her life in suburban Richmond where she has been taken because of her mental difficulties (probably bipolar depression). Here, she begins writing her novel, Mrs. Dalloway.

Then there is the story of Mrs. Dalloway (Meryl Streep), not the one from the novel but a present day Mrs. Dalloway who reflects the character from the book.

I'm not sure this is actually her name, it may simply be the name she has been given by her friend and former lover, the poet played by Ed Harris (who has AIDS and is dying). This is a woman whose busy social activities (giving parties, beaming smiles) hide the emptiness and pain in her life.

Finally, there is the early 1950's suburban housewife played by Julienne Moore. She is a woman who seems always on the verge of screaming as she covers her unhappiness and tries to meet the expectations of a wife of that period. While not stated overtly, there is the implication that her real problem is that she is lesbian at a time when that was simply not an option. It is why she doesn't fit in this world however much she tries.

It's difficult to describe much more of the film without giving away its secrets. The movie has a bit of a reputation as being depressing but, while it is thematically dark (with meditations on suicide and mental anguish), it is really the very opposite of this.

This is articulated late in the film when Virginia Woolf is asked by her husband why a character in her novel must die.

Her answer states the theme of the film.

For me, one of the great pleasures of the film is seeing how the pieces connect as it plays out. The stories all interrelate and watching the film is like a voyage of discovery.

It's also an ensemble piece flush with great performances throughout. The three lead performances, Kidman, Streep and Moore are all exceptional and each in a distinct way.

I wish I had seen this film earlier than I did. It came out on DVD back in the summer of 2003. Had I seen it, it would have been on my list of Top DVDs of 2003. (I may yet add it, despite being after the fact.)

Speaking of the disc, the image is pristine and the sound is great, especially with the score by Phillip Glass.

As for the features, this is one of the better discs for those. These aren't fluff features; there is some meat to them, including director Stephen Daldry discussing the film and a fairly good background documentary on Virginia Woolf.

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