Saturday, March 31, 2012

Sudden Impact

“It must make you feel good to make old, ugly things right again.” This is a line uttered halfway through Sudden Impact in response to artist Jennifer Spencer (Sondra Locke) who is restoring an old carousel on the pier. This line of dialogue also seems applicable to the film itself which was the first Dirty Harry film to be released in seven years, and the first to be officially directed by Eastwood. Sudden Impact is an attempt to not only revive the series but to also restore its reputation and image after the so-so (so-called) final film of the series, The Enforcer. Sudden Impact is a return to form even if it is a bit too long and glossier than the films released in the ‘70s were. It’s a hard-hitting, violent, exhilarating – albeit cartoonish at times – and frustratingly uneven revival for the most famous San Francisco homicide detective and his .44 Magnum. It must have made Eastwood feel good to know that he could still rake in the dollars with this character; it’s just a shame that he seemed content allowing Harry to flounder from scene to scene until the final hour when the film presents one of the more interesting conflicts for Harry.

Friday, March 30, 2012

The Enforcer

It is inevitable that when something is as big a box office hit and cultural phenomena as Dirty Harry, that countless imitators and unnecessary cash-in sequels will follow. However, in 1973’s Magnum Force, Eastwood and co. sidestepped a lot of the pitfalls of the sequel to create a film with an intriguing idea that completely flipped the coin on Inspector Callahan, making him a more conflicted character while still adhering to his no-nonsense moral standards; you’re either right or you’re wrong according to Callahan, and it doesn’t matter if it’s a hippy serial killer or rogue cops. So what ground could there possibly be left to cover that wouldn’t seem like recycling what the series had done prior? The Enforcer, the third – and what was supposed to be final – entry in the Dirty Harry series, doesn’t do anything to sour the previous two films of the series, but it also doesn’t do anything extraordinary to cause it to stand out; it’s just kind of there: an efficiently made cop thriller that happens to have one of our favorite movie characters as its protagonist shootin’ bad guys and blowing stuff up real good.  

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Magnum Force

The best thing about Magnum Force – aside from being one of those rare sequels that can more than hold its own – is that it gets the viewer to rethink and reassess the original Dirty Harry. It has a lot of the things we come to expect from the subgenre and from sequels in general: it tries to go bigger with its stunts and chases (which, really, the first film didn’t have), it’s a bit more bloated, and it has a lot of those cliché interactions between the rogue cop and his superiors. But it also has a lot of ideas in its head; it’s more than just a cash-in (even though it did make more than the original). Magnum Force has ideas and allows us to look at the original with a better understanding of its themes thanks to its tackling of and response to the criticisms the original film received.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Dirty Harry

The controversy and cultural impact surrounding Don Siegel’s 1971 film is well documented. We all know about Pauline Kael’s quote and about the critical backlash against the film’s pro-gun, pro-vigilante point of view; however, what sometimes gets missed in all of that is the simple fact that Dirty Harry is a seminal and important film. One of the best films of the ‘70s, Dirty Harry is essentially an exploitation movie financed by a big time studio with its biggest star in the lead role. It looks like an exploitation movie, it sounds like an exploitation movie (the music is one of the most memorable things about the film), and it plays like an exploitation movie. What Siegel and Eastwood and screenwriters Harry Julian and R.M. Fink have done is not just create an iconic character that spouts memorable lines (although, Dirty Harry spawned many sequels and bad knockoffs) as he points his .44 Magnum at bad guys, they created a time capsule film that speaks to the chaos and the rapidly changing America of the ‘60s; however, what makes the film still relevant today is in the fact that the filmmakers ultimately made a film that is eerily prescient for today’s America.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Basic Instinct

In Roger Ebert’s 1992 review, he wrote, "The film is like a crossword puzzle. It keeps your interest until you solve it, by the ending. Then it's just a worthless scrap with the spaces filled in." Narratively speaking, the same could be said for a number of Hitchcock films; It’s the style that keeps us coming back to those, and it’s the style, as well as the subtext, that keeps me coming back to Verhoeven’s film. I think it’s incredibly shortsighted of Ebert to see the film in this light considering it’s so heavily indebted to Hitchcock, whose films, for the most part, played exactly as he describes above. Verhoeven always has had an uncanny knack for capturing the particular milieu of whatever genre he’s tackling. Even though he’s over-the-top, he never comes right out and admits his purpose. Perhaps that’s why so many people have trouble with him: he’s so good at it that you think what you’re getting is just another genre film competently crafted and nothing more. I think maybe that’s why people have a hard time looking beyond the general silliness of something such as Starship Troopers or the sex and violence in Basic Instinct as films that are saying something beyond their gruff narratives and ultra-violent surfaces. I also think that the knock on Basic Instinct — and Verhoeven in general — derives from over-the-top tendencies that allow the film to get lost by the end. It results in a well-made, but not great, experience. For me, I love the way Verhoeven goes storming into his narratives, and Basic Instinct (even though it’s “lesser” Verhoeven), 20 years later, still stands as one of his most loopy, over-the-top and slyly fun rides.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Through a Glass Darkly

Through a Glass Darkly is interesting if for no other reason than Bergman didn’t seem to really care for it all. One could chalk it up to the usual case of the artist’s self-deprecation, but when reading his book Images: My Life in Film you understand that Bergman had a different film in mind before he shot Through a Glass Darkly, and the result — which is certainly one of the most seminal foreign films of the ‘60s — was not to his liking. I think Bergman is too hard on himself and critiquing the movie he had in his head instead of the one he actually filmed. What’s important about this film, aside from helping Americans ingratiate themselves into the foreign film world (along with Fellini and Antonioni), is that it marks a shift in tone for the auteur. With Through a Glass Darkly, Bergman worked out the kinks and used its aesthetic and its themes as a catalyst for what would be the Bergman tableau that everyone recognizes today.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Lethal Weapon turns 25

My thoughts on the 25th Anniversary of Lethal Weapon, and how the film affected my life as a cinephile, is now up at Edward Copeland's site. Here's a sample:

Donner also makes the film re-watchable all these years later because the logistics of the action scenes make sense. Something modern action films are completely devoid of, letting your audience get their bearings and understand the confines of the space the film’s characters inhabit (especially during fight scenes) is what separates the really good action films from the bad ones. Look at the final fight scene between Riggs and the mercenary Joshua (a fantastic performance from Gary Busey in a role he credits to saving his career at the time) which is an interesting mix of Brazilian ju-jitsu and a fighting style known as Jailhouse Rock which is a mixture of different styles. These fighting styles hadn’t been seen onscreen before in a mainstream action movie (Steven Seagal’s Above the Law wouldn’t come out for another year) and showcase just how lethal Riggs is; they also put the viewer right into the chaos of the final fight which is a brutal, intense hand-to-hand battle. The difference between this final fight scene and say something from the Bourne movies is that Donner wisely cuts back about every 20 seconds to an establishing shot to remind the audience where they are so they can logically follow the action in the scene despite its chaotic aesthetic. It’s one of my favorite fight scenes in any action movie. 

Monday, March 5, 2012

Catching up with 2011: Midnight in Paris

Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris is fantastical, whimsical yarn of magical realism that is his best comedic work since the criminally underrated Anything Else. The film’s tone is actually more akin to Everyone Says I love You, though, another underrated Allen film, as Own Wilson’s wide-eyed performance and amazement and just general agog nature is so infectious that even the most cynical of Allen fans would find something to admire in the film. Midnight in Paris is best when it deals with the past. Allen’s protagonist Gil (Owen Wilson channeling his inner Wood-man) is an appropriately lost person (he’s very much like Jay Gatsby in that regard) seeking solace in the magic of Paris under the lights (and preferably in the rain) considering the film places him among the most famous members of the Lost Generation. Stein, Hemingway, the Fitzgerald’s, et al slip in and out of the narrative giving the film its charming allure (especially for this lit major). The allusions to the Lost Generation, the music of Cole Porter, the flappers, the fashion, the way it’s all filmed in an nostalgic light…it all makes Midnight in Paris one of my favorite movies of 2011. The stuff set in the modern day with Gil’s fiancée (Rachel McAdams) is less affective, however, and a bit clunky (why are these two getting married exactly?), but it’s harmless enough, and Michael Sheen’s character – referred to as the “pedant” in the film, which I found funny because I know guys like that – provides enough laughs (albeit too easy considering this is a Woody Allen movie; he should be above resorting to jokes about Tea Party members) to keep it from sinking the film.

Every scene involving Gil and the crew from the ‘20s is rife with the kind of time-travel humor one expects from that kind of comedy and the usual Allen sprinklings of bon mot.  One of my very favorite scenes is when Gil explains where he’s from and the eras that he’s travelling between to both Salvador Dali and Luis Buñuel, and how Ned’s story doesn’t make the surrealists so much as flinch. There’s also a scene where Gil buys a book in French and has a tour guide read it to him in English on a bench; it’s a beautiful scene from the present day scenes that rivals the best scenes from the ‘20s. Also great (and really charming and beautiful) is Marion Cotillard as Adriana. She and Wilson have a really sweet scene at the end that is the catalyst for Gil’s epiphany. Cotillard’s smile, charm, and just general happiness, is as equally infectious as Wilson’s. Sweet and charming and obviously filmed by a man who loves Paris – those opening postcard images is one of my very favorite openings of any movie in 2011 – Midnight in Paris works because of its beautiful and nostalgic and magical scenes from 1920 and the way the film so effortlessly moves along and elicits laughs and smiles. I loved it.  

Friday, March 2, 2012

Catching up with 2011: Take Shelter

With Take Shelter, Jeff Nichols avoids the sophomore slump – his 2008 film Shotgun Stories was my pick for the best film of that year – by creating a moody, atmospheric nightmare; a film that is one half The Shining, with its haunting dream imagery that stems from the point of view of a man losing his mind, also one half Through a Glass Darkly with its poignant observations about how mental illness affects the family unit. Take Shelter is scary because of its imagery, yes, but moreso because of its study of its protagonist, an everyday-kind-of-guy named Curtis (Michael Shannon), and his slow decline and – perhaps the singular element that makes the film most haunting – his realization that his mind is slipping away from him. This is one of the very best movies of 2011 anchored by some brilliantly balanced direction by Nichols (mixing great apocalyptic effects in the nightmare sequences with wise nuanced decisions in the every-day scenes) and two of the best performances of the year.