Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Pineapple Express (David Gordon Green, 2008) B+

A stoner comedy that is actually funny (unlike those old Cheech and Chong movies) and doesn't make you ashamed that you laughed so much (unlike Half Baked)- who knew it was possible? The plot is one of those ridiculous, only-in-the-movies types that probably wouldn't make much sense written down but completely works onscreen. The climactic fight at the weed processing plant was nearly as dramatic as the epic battle in Kill Bill Volume 1 (and just as improbable). I'm glad for the unusual casting of Rosie Perez as the bad cop, excelling at whatever comedic scraps she is thrown, and Seth Rogen is somehow still funny doing his fat schlub shtick, but the movie completely and utterly belongs to James Franco as Rogen's perpetually high-in-the-sky dealer. In a million years I never would have figured that this pretty but bland leading man in shit like Annapolis and Flyboys could deliver a performance this consistently funny and out there all while remaining perfectly true to the character. If Oscar went for comedic performances, this would be the hands down favorite as of right now.

The Savages (Tamara Jenkins, 2007) B

The Savages is not exactly the dark, dysfunctional family comedy that it was advertised to be, but I still found Tamara Jenkins' film to be, for the most part, worth the effort. The film is smarter than most dysfunctional family comedies because it doesn't have improbably snappy and witty dialogue and the relationship between Wendy (The Lovely Laura Linney) and her brother Jon (Philip Seymour Hoffman) feels completely natural and realistic. There's this wonderful scene that takes place towards the end of the film that I just can't get out of my head a couple of weeks later. The father (Philip Bosco) has just died and Wendy and Jon are standing over his body, not really sure how to react. Finally, Wendy speaks up and, in a tone somewhere between a declaration and a question, says, "This is it." The moment is so quiet and subtle that it's easy to forget, but I think it points out the major strengths of this film. I would love to rate this film higher, but there were just a few moments throughout the entire length that really dragged the film down and made it feel a tad bit too long. Still, a fantastic job from Jenkins, someone I will definitely be looking out for in the future.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

The Big Knife (Robert Aldrich, 1955) B-

For what it's worth, I don't think there's another director (besides Sirk in The Tarnished Angels) who used black and white photography in such ways like Robert Aldrich did with both Autumn Leaves and this film. The contrast is crisp and clear and ultimately beautiful to look at. I wish the same could be said about the film. The Big Knife is a solid picture and there are hints at what could have been in some of the performances (Jean Hagen and Shelley Winters do what they can with underwritten roles). The biggest problem with this film is that the screenplay acts like its some sort of formal authority about life in the 50's, "The Great American Screenplay," when in all actuality it's nowhere near as interesting or damning as it thinks it is. We learn from this film that studio chiefs are ruthless, cold people who will do whatever it takes to keep their stars in line and get the most money out of money. Even then, that wasn't exactly the most original thought in the world (The Bad and the Beautiful had been released three years previously) and I wish there had been some more creativity with its intentions.

The Barkleys of Broadway (Charles Walters, 1949) B- (x2)

I never thought I would ever find the occasion or need to re-screen this film, but Nick at Nick's Flick Picks had been praising Ginger Rogers to high heavens for her performance here, going so far as to say that she should have won the Oscar for it. I saw this movie a few years ago and I thought it was your average Astaire-Rogers vehicle with the same type of performance from Ginger Rogers that we had been getting since the 30's. On this viewing, I discovered the beauty of this performance and how it wasn't just another Rogers' performance. Ten years after the last Astaire-Rogers vehicle, Ginger came roaring back in with style and class. The role combines the best attributes of Rogers' previous Oscar-worthy work (the dancing and personality in Top Hat and the comedic chops from Stage Door) and showcases her in a way we had never seen before. My favorite scene is at the art gallery when the pretentious art is showcasing his new piece dedicated to the Barkleys and she gives these hilarious and subtle sideways glances to Astaire when the artist calls her the pancake batter. It could have been overdone, but Rogers finds a nice middle ground. As for the rest of the film, its generally pretty good, if a bit clumsily done. The musical numbers are great, especially the magical rehearsal scene where Astaire and Rogers simply tap dance together and remind us of how great they were together, but, in the context of the story, they really added nothing to the plot (even the "Top Hat, White Tails and Cane" number in Top Hat had a little purpose).

The Bad Sleep Well (Akira Kurosawa, 1960) B+

For me, Kurosawa is one of the those directors who makes engrossing, thoroughly fascinating films that are always worth look, but there's just something about them that I can't "love" them in that special way that you're supposed to love your favorites. The Bad Sleep Well, I must say, is another one of those films. As a mystery/suspense film, it's a notch lower than High and Low; however, The Bad Sleep Well has a certain allusiveness that kept me involved in the plot even when things slowed down a bit. And the downbeat, cynical ending was a welcome surprise. All in all though, like most Kurosawa films, this is one I don't think I'll ever need to see again.

Never Back Down (Jeff Wadlow, 2008) C

My random and distracted thoughts here.

The Girl Said No (Sam Wood, 1930) F

When you head into a William Haines picture, you almost always know what to expect. Haines always plays a cocky young fellow (usually an athlete, but not here) who falls in love with someone else's girl and then tries to woo her, all while learning a lesson about humility, during the rest of the picture. In The Girl Said No, we get all that but I was horribly offended and disgusted (and I don't do that easily) by Haines' character's treatment of the girl he chases after. She really does say, "No," quite emphatically, and when he doesn't listen and continues to pursue her, it takes on the form of rape and I definitely don't need to see that. Add to that the scene where Haines puts a bag over the girls head and kidnaps her away from her wedding and I nearly felt like vomiting. Haines' characters are usually cads, but they have a redeeming factor that makes up for it in the end; here, Haines is a complete prick the whole way through and still manages to get whatever he wants. The Girl Said No is a relic of a type of film that's better left in the past and with no redeeming factors to unearth it.

An Unfinished Life (Lasse Hallstrom, 2005) C

With such a talented, and eccentric, cast that Hallstrom has brought together for An Unfinished Life, it's such a shame that there's nothing really noteworthy about the entire picture. In fact, An Unfinished Life is so one-note and ordinary that I can't even think of anything to say about it, positively or negatively. The performances are decent, if a little disappointing since we've all seen the three leads (J. Lo, Robert Redford and Morgan Freeman) in better and more interesting roles/performances (and it's especially disheartening from J. Lo, since earlier that same year we had just seen her give her funniest/most relaxed performance since Selena in Monster in Law). The film looks nice, if a tad Hallmark-generic, and the script is your everyday, run-of-the-mill, disconnected family drama but doesn't turn into complete junk with an overly sappy conclusion. In the end, An Unfinished Life is a film that you will walk out of not exclaiming that your life has been changed or wanting the two hours you just wasted watching it back; instead, you'll get up, scratch yourself and wonder what's for dinner.

Jeanne Eagels (George Sidney, 1957) C-

Jeanne Eagels is nothing more than your average completely falsified 50's star biopic in which its only resemblance to reality is the name of the star and a couple of the plays/movies they did in their ascension to stardom. George Sidney is a competent director and makes everything go down rather smoothly, even when it probably shouldn't have, and the finale couple of scenes, highlight Eagels' descent into "alcholism" (she was a heroin addict in real life) surrealy and rather frighteningly. The main weakness in this film is Kim Novak, who plays Eagels. She isn't a good enough actress to make the Jeanne an interesting person outside of her addiction and her drunk scenes were so bad that I wasn't sure if she was being serious or not. She slurs her words so pronouncedly and overacts over drunken gesture that all I could think was that I've seen high schoolers deliver drunk scenes more believable.