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Boogie Nights (1997)
One of the Great Films Of Our Time
Boogie Nights is a parable. It is a cautionary tale, a tale of misfits in a makeshift family and it is a story about an era--how a time and place felt, how wonderful that feeling was, and how it couldn't last.
Innocence is a theme and a feel in this film. What could be less innocent than pornography? Boogie Nights admittedly sugar coats the industry enough to make it palatable to the audience enough to keep them focused on greater themes of human nature, family, finding a place in the world, and the idea that everyone has something special, a gift.
It is often said by viewers that Dirk is pathetic and his penis is the star. The way he's portrayed though, it is clear he is the perfect storm and his 'gift' is his general sexual appeal mixed with pleasant personality, perfect for the industry at the time. Back then both male and female performers were seen as sexy people, not just meat.
Very touching is watching how Walberg plays Eddie/Dirk before he enters the industry. He's beat down by a loveless family and a mean mom who does not believe in him in any way. The archetype of this mom, far from outrageous, is so relevant to reality that it makes most viewers cringe. Eddie/Dirk walks out with nothing but belief in self to find his own off beat version of self worth, and in the process he gets a de facto family.
Boogie follows a whole array of characters with varying degrees of closeness. Few films allow one to feel connected to this volume of people. Perhaps, though, it is the odd father/son substitute between Dirk and Jack (Reynolds) that is at the personal center of the film. We don't see it fully until their last hug at the end, but Dirk is no throwaway talent to Jack--he likes Dirk, and thinks he's not a replaceable person or talent. Perhaps he sees himself as a father figure to Dirk.
Despite the changes in Dirk throughout the movie, fueled by B-level 'underground' stardom, he remains mostly a likable guy and you can see why the others in the 'porn family' like him so. He only loses control and breaks off (for a time) when his cocaine problem gets the best of him. Even then, he is kind and loyal most of the time. Everything in these late 70's early 80's days was more innocent, even if they aren't in principal. The drug of choice is coke, which while bad, is not as bad as the Crack and Heroin that would take over as the 80's ran on. Even at his lowest low, the infamous scene where he tries to sell fake coke and everything goes wrong, Dirk maintains a level of innocence and goodness that most wouldn't and later eras might not allow for. He makes a decision there, in the famous space-out shot, to go back to Jack and set his life back on track (relatively speaking).
A dimension of Boogie Nights that astounds me is the documentary aspect. This involves rigorous recreation of the look, the styles, the fashion and the feel of self indulgent, brightly colored innocence that went so far as to make the porn industry something of a fun, light time.
The bare bones production of the porn films is fondly milked for smiles. Andersen doesn't let this fondness for his characters and their era allow them off the hook. He constantly skewers how dumb most of the characters are. He allows us to have a laugh at what was considered classy and fashionable at the time--crazy collars, polyester, platforms, feathered hair. Perhaps the most pathetically funny scene I've ever viewed in a movie is when Dirk and Reed try their hand at music. Dirk sings (off key) a classic piece of 80's cheese from the transformers movie 'The Touch' and a song, right out of the era, Reed and Dirk work on in front of us (actually by John C. Reily and Anderson)'Feel the Heat'. No director has ever gone this far to recreate an era. In addition, we get some scenes from the actual Dirk porn films,(a hilarious foray into Dirk and Reed creating a 'James Bond type character'). Finally, we get to see a documentary about Dirk made by his mother figure, Amber Waves.
Boogie gets us to believe in an era, one that has a reputation that's less than flattering. As a bit a parable, bit of a satire and a bit of a legend, it takes a black and white view--as soon as 1980 dawns trouble begins. It works in the mythic universe of this film and what it is trying to do. The changes we see under the small lens of the porn industry in the film help us to understand where we are culturally today, oddly enough. The fact that the 80's are a darkness that comes and can't be dodged, but the characters find ways to deal with it suggests something about human nature and also what our age is all about--putting up with our ever more destructive excess.
The film also gives true pathos to mostly stupid people who at times make poor decisions. We are interested in them, and cheer for them. Even when we laugh at them we don't dismiss them. As an audience we relate to them, even as they are ostracized in a untouchable line of work. The film is a legend based on the most odd subject, yet we feel it on a personal level and the human tales are transferable to anyone's life.
Few films do this much, show us this many aspects of the human condition, have this much humor, warmth and satire, bring to life an era in such vivid splendor, and are this much fun. Boogie Nights is one of the great films of our time.
Big Eyes (2014)
Tim Burton's new film Big Eyes fails to deliver on what is a very interesting idea for a movie. Burton may never have totally delivered on the promise that his first major, Pee Wee's Big Adventure, suggested. Since his debut he's made some good films with a ton of style: Beetlejuice, Batman, Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood. Lately, his films have gotten weighted down in pointless artifice, cgi, a formulaic approach and trite writing. Tim has been in a rut. In concept, doing a more 'straight up' bio pic to work out of the rut was a great idea. And the Keane story is a very good topic for a film.
When all is said and done, this film is a series of clichés and shallow stereotypes. It is a bit of unintended irony that the film is about paintings ripe with cliché and sentimental generalization--formulaic, shaded cartoon images of sad children with huge eyes--because the film feels clichéd, glassed over, shallow, sentimental, formulaic as well as unintentionally cartoonish. There is a difference between stylized and cartoonish, and in this film, Burton constantly veers between fairly straight forward drama and cartoonish simplification and reinvention. Waltz's Keane becomes a clown in this film, rather than the subtle, authoritative trickster he must have been. The trial scene at the end is particularly bad in this respect. Adams' Margaret Keane is played with more subtlety, but we still never get a clue about what makes her tick. Why does she fall into bad relationships? What compels her to paint, and to paint the kitsch she does? Is she aware on any level of the status of her work as pop kitsch with more marketing value than artistic consideration? The movie gives us a faint impression that she just proudly does what she does without giving a thought to where it fits in or its 'artistic value' but the film really doesn't approach such questions, so we never learn these things about her character.
Where the Keane art falls in the spectrum of society is also handled in a cartoonish and shallow way. Jason Schwartzman's modernist gallery owner is the symbol of a snooty art world's reaction to the Keane work. Slightly more interesting is the portrayal of critic John Canaday's response to the work (although Watlz's cartoonish portrayal in a face to face confrontation ruins potential magic). In general, serious art world folk, while being annoyed by the big eyes, would not feel threatened by it. Their abstract expressionism money machine was on a totally different cultural track and they knew it. Critics like Canaday felt the need to lash out simply because everyday folks were confusing a hula hoop-like kitsch fad with an art movement. Silent in the film is that the period shown was the age of kitsch and that even 'everyday' folks were, on some level, aware of this and able to separate the Keane fad from normal fine art trends.
A dictionary definition of kitsch reads as such: art, objects, or design considered to be in poor taste because of excessive garishness or sentimentality, but sometimes appreciated in an ironic or knowing way. What is all too clear watching Big Eyes is that Burton is a huge kitschophile. His love of the Keane paintings takes away some of the power of the subject's contradictions. At one point Jason Schwartzman's character quips on finding out Margaret was actually the big eye painter, "Who would WANT credit for those?" It's meant to be snarky, but it is one of the few hints of a discussion about the art and it's meaning in the complex context of stolen credit in a marriage. The strangeness and badness of the work isn't presented seriously, taking some of the teeth out of the film's bite. Worse, Burton's total love of the art limits the complexity of the film, yet he fails to convey the off color charm these paintings have for him.
This film ends up playing more like a TV show than a movie. It is a short film, and yet it still induces some seat squirming and watch checking. It lacks depth, complexity and interest. The script is not sharp. It seems happy with shallow sentiment and generalizations. The emotions are limited. It feels like it isn't sure if it wants to be a drama or a comedy, but it fails at both--it is neither compelling drama or sharp satire. The few laughs available are chuckles. Margaret's constant empty-headed dignity wears thin (she's not allowed to be the butt of any jokes) and Walter's egotist clown does as well. (Also worth mentioning that music would have been a great way to add to the tone of this film, but the talented Elfman turns in another bland score). The one great feature of the film is the beautiful period sets and street scenes. 5 stars.
The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)
Artful in an age of disposable movies
Wes Anderson is an artist. He doesn't see film as a purely commercial product, but as a craft, something to build, a personal vision---art. Anderson's film art can take on the feel of a picture book or an elaborate model and perhaps no film better exemplifies this approach than his new release, Grand Budapest Hotel.
Writing a review of a Wes Anderson film inevitably comes down to a judgment: Are his films a quirky, obsessively arranged delights, or are they compulsive, silly and shallow forms of artifice? In many ways I'm split. Anderson is not a bread and butter filmmaker. In some ways it is unfair to judge his work by normal standards because he's not trying to make ordinary films. Anderson takes pride in high style---style so thick that it's a fog, style that in some ways becomes more the subject of his films than any character. Style for the sake of style, of perhaps more accurately, style for the delight of style. Grand Budapest Hotel is perhaps his most stylistically potent concoction. The compositions, the costumes, the sets, the dialogue, the sequencing, the music, the structure, the cameos, the flat, slightly ironic acting style, everything is stamped with the Wes Anderson seal with the volume cranked up to new levels. This, in a way, makes the film very fun. It moves fast and has delightful visuals. Odd bits of humor are peppered in, and the characters, while sketchy, are evocative. But in all the artifice of this world it is easy to forget that in Anderson's earlier worlds there was somewhat less artifice and a bit more heart. Bottle Rocket was an empathetic study of loserdom, and encouraged viewers to ponder what the term loser might actually mean. Rushmore was a funny but tender and detailed character study about a deeply imperfect playwriting prodigy (who, it turns out, is a quirky and smart, but otherwise normal adolescent). In this new film it is easy to miss any depth for the cloud of fun style.
Something interesting is happening to this film---it is making quite a bit of money. Perhaps this reflects something about our era. While Wes has always done well with grey hairs looking for something light and grown-up and hipsters who worship his artfulness, it seems the artistic void in current film is starting to boost Anderson's art, financially. For movie goers sick of unconsidered visuals, plastered with CGI special effects that all start to look the same, Wes' craftsmanship is a good elixir. The care, the sense of fun, the charm, the very personal touch of Anderson's work feels particularly needed at this time in film history. And people seem to be responding. Although in some ways Anderson is the height of trendiness, in many ways he's old fashioned. He loves models. He refuses to worship technology. His idea of a hero is not super.
The center of this film is Ralph Fiennes' Gustave H., a concierge extraordinaire, and mentor of the young Lobby Boy, Zero(Tony Revolori). His character stands out, not only for his showy quirks, but because Fiennes plays him without the dead-pan irony, so typical of performances in Anderson films, which surround him. While this film provides the expected fun, storybook escapism, with a Roald Dahl flair, there is perhaps something deeper here---Gustave H. is a man who clings to an era in the past. He's not a young man, but he's not clinging to his youth, he fancies an era and way of doing things and a way of carrying one's self that is more late Victorian than modern (this film takes place between the world wars). He lives by a different, older code of conduct, and this choice makes him excel and stand out in his surroundings. In the world of the Grand Budapest Hotel, progress isn't such a great thing. We see her in 1968, as the film opens, far past her prime, ugly, run down and a bit Soviet-looking. The film could be seen as a cautionary tale of the idolatry of progress. In our current age we obsess and cling to our progress---most of it technological things like tablet computers, cell phones, and genetic engineering, but some social, such as political correctness. This isn't the futurism of postwar America---in current form we brag of our progress with a different tone, and long gone is the optimism of that era. Whereas people of postwar America believed in the future and the positive impact of progress, we now look at the future with jaded skepticism as we brag and exaggerate our contributions to human progress. In this era, there seems to be an underground world of Gustave H's---people who carry themselves as though they are in an older more refined era, whether they can personally recall that era or not. It is a stance of personal preference but also of principal. In his own way Wes Anderson is one of these people--- people who dream of a more principled past age in reaction to our own lack of principal. If such a more principled era ever truly existed, or if every era was plagued by horrific shortcomings is beyond the point--- such yearnings are the result of humility and belief that the future can be as wonderful as an imagined past.
7 and 1/2 stars.
The Avengers (2012)
Despite the ridiculous overrating of 8.2 out of 10 stars on this site at the time of this review, there are some pretty good negative reviews on here. A number of people seem confused why this film is considered good or even outstanding, and they should be confused. Generally, I'm confused why people are so impressed by this type of film over and over. It is simple-minded, predictable, boiling over with clichés, ugly to look at, lacking character development, and overblown in just about every way. It really isn't worth the time for a full review, particularly in light of some good ones here already. I'll just list some flaws that I think most people are not acknowledging.
--This film is overly long. It's 2 hours and 22 minutes. A popcorn comic book movie shouldn't make your butt and bladder hurt this much.
--The pacing of this film is uneven. You expect this type of film to be packed with mindless action, but it had a lot of inexplicable lulls. I thought the dull section of the film on the floating ship would never end. The set up also took way too long and was uninteresting.
--This movie spends a lot of time on the pop psychology of its heroes as well as the psychology of their group dynamic. This becomes dull and tiresome, yet for the time spent on it we still get cardboard cutouts.
--Why is the story fueled by the Thor story line, the most outlandish and inane of the Marvel tales (close second for Captain America)? Loki is a silly, petty villain. It is hard to relate to any of these heroes, as they all seem inexplicably immortal, but the whole Norse God/Space Alien thing with Thor and Loki perhaps should have been swept under the rug. Maybe there is some sort of comic book tradition reason for this choice?
--This movie looks bad. It is ugly and fake looking. There is way too much CGI that isn't even required by the special effects demands of a scene. The action scenes have a numbing effect after a little while and it becomes easy to forget you aren't watching a video game.
--This film is fueled by clichés of every kind. It feels like a used, third hand piece of writing.
--There are some good actors in this film (and some not so good) but they aren't given enough space to spread their wings. The script is also a heavy yoke these actors must try to preform under the restriction of.
--I felt nothing watching this film other than mild irritation. I don't expect a huge emotional impact watching this type of film. That's not why I see this type of movie. Still, I found it strangely empty. It is basically as if the filmmakers have put their focus on all the wrong aspects of their craft. The film quickly ceases to be fun for me, in part because it is so empty.
--I think it also feels empty because it has a 'going through the motions' type feel to it. The plot is one of unsubtle inevitability. 2 hours and 22 minutes is a long film, but it feels much longer if there are few if any surprises, and the basic arc of the plot is so polished that it feels like a one hump roller coaster.
--A blockbuster superhero action film isn't really about subtlety, nor should it be. But this film lacks any moral gray, or tense emotion fueled by uncertainty. It replaces any emotion with bald faced sentiment. And while it is filled with tiny details and references, its themes are mind numbing, characters thin (even if you've seen all the Marvel films) and storytelling cluttered, but full of unimaginative sequences.
--This film is slick. It is a formula that is well greased and polished to a blinding shine. And it is tough to make a film that is presented in this smooth, flashy, yet non-stylistic sort of way. But this confidence of the filmmakers wears on me. It feels like the polish of the film makes it feel more plastic than it needs to, and guts any chance of the film having a soul. And the immense machine that is this film and this series has become so smooth and over confidant that it really does not feel the need to be interesting in any way... like in a way a lot of cheap, low budget and unambitious movies are. It is a plague of our age of filmmaking.
--Remember when a blockbuster used to be something like Jaws?
Do 'Popcorn Movies' Need to Be this Dumbed Down?
In some ways the premise of Captain America: The First Avenger is irony deaf. The film has a similar light, fun-loving and stylized tone to other recent Marvel movies. But this film is more earnest and perhaps sentimental. The intended moral of the film could be summed up in a line from the movie---'A weak man knows the value of strength.' The concept of a brave imp with a heart of gold being the center of a film is interesting. The only problem is that Steve Rogers is a less than nobody, a man of little to no value, until he's juiced up on sci-fi 'roids. Once he becomes a hunk with super athletic power, he's suddenly worth while (and only then is his obvious love interest interested in him). Normally I don't really put much stock into how 'movie messages' affect youth. But this movie seems to tell kids they are worthless and unattractive unless they are super-buff Adonises. It also seems to suggest in our supposedly anti-steroids era that it is OK to take the easy way to physical strength and all the power it brings.
But, reading less into meanings, Captain America is a rather dull film. It has a used feel because so many of the ideas and forays of the film are second hand. Part of this is only natural in this era of comic book movie proliferation. The movie has adopted a sort of Men In Blackish sci-fi 1940's look that has little to do with history, mixed in with some war and action movie clichés with a bit of Bond-villain over the top evil and souped up Nazi reference bad guys with some Indian Jones sci-fi mysticism. No idea here feels fully original, yet the brew is disjointed as well as stereotypical.
The casting is lacking. The cast and acting style takes the audience out of the 40's era the film is supposed to take place in immediately. Chris Evans is blandly earnest, though competent in his role as Steve Rodgers. Hayley Atwell is bland and empty as Peggy. Tommy Lee Jones is, well, distractingly Tommy Lee Jones in his role as Colonel Phillips, although he is one of he few bits of screen presence in the film. And of course who better (or more predictable) to play a souped up Nazi with a red skull face than Hugo Weaving? But it isn't just acting and casting. The characters are written as clichés from foundation to roof. We have the all American hero from modest background (in this case from modest body), ultra Darth Vaderesque villain with Star Wars-like super weaponry (and no real motive or back story), the tough minded babe poised to fall in love with the newly buff hero, the tough but fair military leader, and assorted less used cliché people. Even for a popcorn action film this seems dumbed down.
This film is escapism, but do we want to escape here? The film is bland and lacks all but the most simple messages which it still manages to mess up. The action is ample, yet not attention getting. The bounds of reality are strained. Steve Rodgers' new found strength suddenly makes him the most coordinated human ever to live, and soldiers crack unfunny quips to one another at the most intense combat moments imaginable, in the face of new Star Wars type weaponry. Nothing about WWII era look or strategy even remotely concerns itself here. The idea of a comic book film taking place in the 40's is interesting, but the film has no interest in the 40's or WWII in any but the most shallow way. The look of the film beyond some nice art deco looking things is not appealing. The special effects are not interesting to look at, yet are plastered everywhere. The one major exception is the 'wussing' of Chris Evans, which is done remarkably well---it is one of the few joys of the film. Overall this film has a tone of mindless excess which feels like it could have been directed by a computer program. 3 and ½ stars.
Napoleon Dynamite (2004)
I won't attempt a traditional review here. I'd like to point out two things about Napoleon Dynamite which put it in elite movie company. The first is 'watchability'. This film is perhaps the most watchable movie I've ever seen. Whenever it happens to be on TV, literally, I'm able to watch it, whether I end up doing it or not. Most films create a sort of cringe reaction when even the suggestion of repeat viewing is mentioned within less than a year. This film's timetable is more like a week.
And one can pick the film up, after an initial viewing all the way through, at any point and have no trouble enjoying it. It is almost like each scene is its own self reliant little film which has all the enjoyment a viewer needs available. To a large extent, this film's unambitious plot makes it mostly a series of vignettes, but those vignettes are so strong and so well paced that the approach is immensely effective and comes off looking brilliant if you think about it long enough.
The second thing about this movie that makes it elite is how memorable it is. As a whole it is quite memorable, but I'm talking even more about specific, small pieces. Lines, momentary reactions or physical comedy moments, small details and little scenes burn themselves into the memory in a way that most films are incapable of. Every time I go to a thrift shop my mind involuntarily plays the moment from the film when Napoleon picks up a sai off the shelf and puts it in his belt loop. Red Gatorade makes me want to dance. I never look at eggs quite the same way, but they do make me want to look for arrowheads. The list is very long.
I have a movie-loving friend who puts huge stock into how memorable a film is to him after viewing. He has a point: our mind and its biases can clutter our judgment, but our brains are sort of making an involuntary review of a movie when they remember something well, or when you are able to watch something over and over and enjoy it and not want to leave to room. Napoleon Dynamite may not be elite art on an intellectual level, but tell that to our brains! Our minds tell us there is something special about this film. It is mysterious.
In a way Napoleon Dynamite is a perfect storm. Otherwise little known actors suddenly put in legendary comedy performances. Everything works---length, tone, plot, style, editing, music, structure, writing. The director and writer Jared Hess now seems incapable of creating anything in the same quality and innovation solar system as Napoleon. This film is charming to a huge degree, innovative, and well made on almost no budget. That alone is a huge achievement. But its amazing ability to burn pieces of itself in our brains and be watched with casual joy over and over is elite and perhaps unique and that should merit high consideration and praise. 8 and 1/2 stars.
Trite Drama Saps Comedy
Bridesmaids is a great example of how words have lost their meaning in how we describe and interpret our films these days. This film is described as a comedy, but, only perhaps a third of the films is even meant to be humorous. That's probably generous. This isn't just false advertising to the alert movie-goer. It is a sort of self lie that the makers of this film are telling themselves without even knowing it.
Here's what I mean: If only a third of this film is funny, than what is the rest? The rest is light and very shallow drama about a woman who is down on her luck, but also fond of wallowing in her problems. Not the best comedy wellspring. A small part of that is romantic in nature we see this woman, Annie is her name, be used as a third romantic option by a shallow, rich jerk played by Jon Hamm (as though he just ran on set for a day to do it between projects) and an underdeveloped and unrealistic positive relationship develops between Annie and a European sounding Wisconsin State Trooper. The end result is a minority of scenes devoted to comedy. But the problem is deeper because the film is working so many anglesromantic comedy elements with Annie's relationships, straight romance with her State Trooper love interest, a story about female jealousy, female friendship and wedding procedure as well as an almost non existent attempt to show us a bit of all the bridesmaids (who have almost never even heard of each other for some reason). All this, plus Annie's life falls apart to a pathetic and perhaps gratuitous extent, only to rise in the last five minutes like a phoenix. It is too muchin two senses. One, it makes the film too long. Two hours and fifteen minutes is a long film to endure if it isn't inspired. This film isn't. Lauded as a female response to the male oriented Judd Apatow type comedies of our age, this film is simply that formula with more mope and competitive insecurity. If you like Apatow you'll find this film middling. If you think comedy should be moving beyond that type of film now, you'll be disappointed.
The second way this film is too much is that it stretches the writers and actors too far. The dramatic moments feel contrived, shallow, and generic, yet the comedy is not developed nearly enough. Few jokes are innovative or risky in any way. The performances are dull except Melissa McCarthy, who amazingly scores as the only funny and only touching actor in the whole film. In this sense, despite limited screen time, this is her movie.
I think the headline here is opportunity lost. A comedy with mostly female characters from a female perspective is a good idea. Some of the actors have good comedy ability, used here in the wrong way or not enough. Kristen Wiig may have a good comedy lead in her, but this isn't quite it, Melissa McCarthy needs more screen time to stretch out her talents, and Tim Heidecker (who plays a cameo as the groom) should be allowed to at least take a swing at some jokes. His type of comedy riffing is what American comedy needs more of. It seems symbolic that he played a role that allowed him no chance to add to the undernourished comedy.
Soylent Green (1973)
One Of Our Better Dystopian Films
I'll be bluntSoylent Green is an easy film to laugh at. From its low budget, to its vintage Charlton Heston performance, to the shock revelation, to the infamy of the 'Soylent Green is People,' line, to the very dated look of the film, there is a lot to tempt a viewer to laugh rather than work with it for an experience.
But laughing the film off fails to recognize one thing---it is a pretty good movie. It is also a rare type of film---one that takes on an interesting moral topic for our society in a manner that is entertaining and lacks pretension. The film falls under the dystopian sci-fi sub genre, which I have a soft spot for. As far as those types of films go, Soylent Green has a creative and vivid concept of the future. It is a bit like A Christmas Carol for planet earth---'This is what will happen if we don't change our ways!' And frankly, even in this day and age we have not changed things enough to avoid a bad era sometime in the future. At every turn Americans seem to have a doom and gloom notion that reveals their knowledge deep down that trouble is ahead if we don't change our ways and solve a great many problems.
Soylent Green came about in an era that perfectly exemplifies this sort of activist mindset, the awareness of what people do to the earth and what that could come to mean. As the youth of the 1960's rebelled and became more socially aware, an explosion of small causes and awareness niches took root in the early seventies. One of these was environmental activism, the idea that earth needed protecting, particularity from the trappings of consumer culture. Unfortunately, this idea has more or less been only at the fringe. But Soylent came about when these ideas were new and close to becoming mainstream.
The brilliant opening montage is one of my favorites in any film I've seen. It pretty well sets the stage for the film in a number of seconds while creating a mini work of art which sets a mood of agitation under the rest of the film. However, this short montage is the manic build up, and despite intrigue, murder and the stress of living in a world that is shutting down under the burden of overpopulation, the rest of the film has an emptiness and placidity to it. We are disturbed by images a pea soup air, shovel loaders full of people, and staircases full of sleeping people at all hours of the day. But a calm loneliness pervades.
Part of this is because a big part of the film is about relationships. This is both unusual for a dystopian film and what is arguably a B- movie. The acting is amazing. Charlton Heston is a hard nosed detective, Thorn who grew up after overpopulation problems took over. His roommate, case researcher and most importantly best and only friend is a smart, tired old man named Sol, who remembers earth before overpopulation. Imagine landscapes, flowing streams, wildlife, fresh and unprocessed food being only memory. It is a very emotional thing for Sol, and the viewers. It only becomes emotional for Thorn after a meal with Sol consisting of fresh food taken from a murdered rich person's apartment.
In many ways this film is a police procedural with some sci-fi dressing. But it quickly touches on a variety of issues in a surface way: politics, class warfare, isolation, secretive government, gender relations, religion, spirituality, ethics. Most important is the moving relationship between Thorn (Heston) and Sol (Edward G. Robinson). It is a rock in the center of a society and planet that is crumbling. It is also the rock at the center of the film, bringing out career best performances from both actors. During the moving death scene where Sol checks into a sort of voluntary death program which involves a film of nature with music to pass to, all sci-fi evaporates, leaving the viewer only the subject of friendship. As the coda of the film happens, we are left to wonder if Thorn is more tortured by the horrible truth he's uncovered or the loss of his only friend in the world. Both point to how far humankind has sunk, or for us viewers, could sink.
¡Three Amigos! (1986)
Well Known 'Inane Comedy'
Three Amigos is a well known example of what I call 'inane comedy'. The jokes are silly and unfocused, while the film's comedy strategy and type seems uncertain. It is as thought the writers and comedian-stars weren't really quite sure what to do once the talent was assembled and threw together the first concept that came to mind, and the first comedy ideas they could conjure up to fit into the basic premise of the film.
The makings of a decent comedy are here: We have three comedian actors, a workable concept and a good comedic director at the helm (Landis). But names aren't everything. Three stars under-deliver. We get Martin Short doing his prototypical goony movements, Steve Martin's slightly less goony movements and smarminess, and Chevy Chase's buffoonery with vintage obnoxious baritone singing from time to time. But perhaps worse than the lack luster and tired performances is the fact the film has no comic direction to speak of. I'm not trying to hold this film to high standards at all---I just want some laughs from it, but more often than not you need some sort of comedy philosophy and tone to build from in order to make people laugh as much as they should. The film starts out as though it may be a satire, making fun of silent movie Hollywood and the hubris of Hollywood in general. Quickly it gets away from that and moves to making fun of three egotistical idiot-stars. From there the film turns into a 'we thought this was fake, but it is real' farce. Some seriousness is added to parts of the plot to fuel this farce scenario. The heroes then become a version of what they faked in silent movies to end the film, in both a not touching and not funny way. Some of the jokes are misunderstanding driven, some try to satirize, some are character driven (look how dumb this character is, and how egotistical this one is!) some are absurdist, while some of the better jokes are old time gags such as the canteen/desert scene and the troubled plane that lands perfectly after an obviously incongruent cut.
But the inanity of the writing, the scattered comedy focus and average performances aren't the only problems here. The execution of potentially good jokes stands out as a feature of this film. The one that comes to my mind is the strange camp-out scene with the super fake set and singing animals (including a tortoise!). The scene is odd and is full of potential laughs, but falls flat. Even those who get a chuckle out of it will be laughing less than they should. An odd feature of the film is that many of these negative aspects make it seem like a rushed, money making project, but the film was made with obvious care. The sets are really nice, the scenery is great and the supporting actors and extras are fantastic (often providing needed little laughs). Even the costumes are well made. I got as much enjoyment looking at the little Mexican village and surrounding scenery as I did from laughs.
Landis has directed many fantastic comedies, such as Animal House and Blues Brothers. This is not his best work, nor is it Steve Martin's or Chase's. It is an OK movie to watch if bored---it is slightly above average for a comedy, and slightly below average for a typical film, in my mind. There are many better places to look for laughs despite the big names. Four and ½ stars.
Short Cuts (1993)
Good not great piecemeal interconnection drama
By the time Robert Altman directed Short Cuts, in 1993, his style of interconnected and quirky characters in the format of a large cast was becoming trendy. The nineties would see other famous examples of this approach by big name directors, notably Tarantino's Pulp Fiction in 1994 and Paul Thomas Anderson's' Magnolia from 1999. There was even a Simpson's episode in this vein in 1996 called '22 Short Films About Springfield'.
Even though Altman was one of the inventors of this style, or grouping of styles, Short Takes suffers some from being in the age of such movies, rather than a monumental predecessor. Altman came close to perfecting the large, interconnected ensemble film in 1975 with Nashville. This film was more of a portrait of a unique city with its own music and culture and a portrait of the times rather than a character study or a gripping pot boiler. So the title made sense. Perhaps an even more accurate title would have been Nashville 1975. Altman excited audiences by making a large scale portrait of a time and place, full of complexity and brimming with interesting little stories and people. By 1993, the charms of these new developments were starting to wear off, and the nineties would sap the creative reservoir (and audience patience) of such sprawling films.
Nashville is a better film---it cracks with energy and humor, it radiates a cynicism that was new in the 70's but is now commonplace. Short cuts fails to be a larger portrait as Nashville was. Nashville's true main character was the city herself. All the pieces fit to make a larger structure. This large structure may have been gaudy and odd, but it was worth building. Short Takes takes place in L.A. Suburbs, but is not about them. It feels like it takes place there because it was convenient, not because Altman had developed a Nashville-like interest in the area. The stories are thus highly reliant on their connections, though these can feel contrived. There is too much material here, even for 3 hours, to mine much real depth with individuals, and so the shattered pieces of a whole are hurt by never fitting into a larger structure. Nashville was 'weird' because it was about a city, Short Takes is 'weird' because it is about nothing. It seems appropriate that this movie came from the age of Seinfeld.
Nashville was better and more innovative, but Short Takes was still on the front edge of the nineties trend of piecemeal interconnection dramas. It seems unfair that Pulp Fiction is so much more heralded and Magnolia is more remembered and loved. Why? Pulp Fiction might be more silly fun, and Magnolia might be by arguably the most gifted director of the three, but Short takes feels left behind by these films even though it was first, from a historical point of view. Part of this comes from the tone. The film is not touching or dramatic in the conventional sense. The viewer doesn't care about anyone in particular. We feel as upset for the girl killed by Chris Penn's character (she has only a few lines) as we do for anyone. Through its sheer fun Pulp Fiction makes you care about the characters in at least a passing way. Magnolia is a web of quirky, interconnected characters, but has more thematic and emotional focus. Short Cuts feels insincere at times, dramatically, and falls into clichés which are amplified by the lack of time any one line of a character is given. The attempts at darkish humor fall flat or feel confusing as to whether they are serious or tongue in cheek. Despite a huge cast of huge names, the actors seem as confused and aimless as the audience. There are very good actors everywhere here and so sometimes good acting comes here and there, but there is a subdued feeling like all the talent has been handicapped. This is a good film if you are in a patient mood, but far from Altman's best work. Six stars.