Sunday, November 30, 2008

Desperately Seeking Susan (1985)

No one is more surprised than me that I actually watched this 80’s movie starring Madonna. I mean, COME ON! I remember when this movie came out, and I pegged it then as a lame vanity project to cash in on Madonna’s popularity. In fairness, I’ll say that I read up on the movie and learned that Madonna wasn’t even the first actress considered for the role. In any event, I gave it a huge skip, because I wasn’t a fan then, and I’m still not. I know, ever since the famous “Madonna discussion” in “Reservoir Dogs” it’s been okay for guys to admit they like Madonna. I’m just not one of those guys.

At the risk of sounding like a grumpy old man, I must say I don’t get what the big deal is about Madonna. She’s a pretty lady with an okay voice who co-writes fairly catchy songs. I’m okay with people digging on her pop-py music, but for some reason the world seems determined to give her way more credit than she deserves. I bought a new pair of pants the other day, but people aren’t falling all over themselves to congratulate me on my uncanny ability to “re-invent” myself in order to “stay relevant.” I can also play the guitar a little, just like about half the people I know. When Madonna learned a few chords, though, it was “a courageous move” that “legitimized her as an artist.” I mean, really. The girl has spent the last 30 years getting paid for hanging out in studios and traveling around with a bunch of musicians. It would have been shocking if she HADN”T learned to play an instrument in all that time. As for the feat of maintaining her stardom for three decades, it’s impressive, but I consider it mostly a commentary on the world’s appetite for sparkly mediocrity. McDonald's is popular, too, folks.

Now that we’ve established that I’m not a starry-eyed Madonna fan, I’ll admit that this movie was alright. Susan (Madonna) is supposed to be a lovably incorrigible New York free spirit rocker chick. To me she looks more like a lying thief who rips off her friends and bails on them, but since she is played by Madonna, I think we are supposed to like her anyway. She steals some cash and a pair of earrings from her latest boyfriend. When the earrings turn out to be stolen Egyptian artifacts, her life takes a dangerous turn. Rosanna Arquette plays Roberta, a bored New Jersey housewife who becomes obsessed with recurring personal ads between Susan and another boyfriend named Jim. She spies on one of their meet-ups and tries to take on a little of Susan’s zany, 80’s Boho style. When she gets mistaken for Susan, then suffers an amnesia-inducing coma, she gets to live Susan’s life for a little while. Hi-jinks ensue.

This was my wife’s pick, and she insisted that is was “an art movie.” Actually, the film does have a bit of that Sundance feel of a small movie that isn’t trying to be a big one. That sense of knowing its own limits saves this from being another piece of un-watchable 80’s crud. The acting and the story aren't anything special, but they are adequate to the film’s ambitions, making it a mildly amusing diversion. I don’t see myself buying the DVD, but I’m not suing to get my two hours back either.

2.5 stars out of 5

Friday, November 28, 2008

Jules and Jim (1962)

Driven by an intense desire to see Jeanne Moreau on the screen again, I loaded our Netflix queue with her films. This classic by director Francois Truffaut is an ambitious exploration of a friendship and love triangle spanning 20 or 30 years. Jules (Oskar Werner) is an Austrian and Jim (Henri Serre) is French. The two meet and become fast friends in the Bohemian haunts of early-twentieth-century Paris. There, they drink, chase girls, and pursue their fascination with art. They become particularly taken with an ancient statue of a gently smiling female face. One day they meet Catherine (Jeanne Moreau), whose serene, yet devilish smile matches that of the statue.

Both men are struck by her, but it is Jules who woos and eventually marries her. The three share an invigorating friendship that survives WWI, but Jim warns Jules that perhaps Catherine was never meant for just one man. The wisdom of his advice is obvious from the way Catherine flirts with Jim, and it is inevitable that they will become lovers. What is not expected is how, as she ages, Catherine’s free spirit morphs into malicious capriciousness, which respectively hardens and softens the hearts of the men she loves.

I’m torn as to whether I loved or hated this movie. It’s clear that, by the end, I mostly hated the characters for their self-indulgence, self-delusion, and self-loathing. The film itself, though, is quite thought-provoking, and it mostly succeeds in its efforts to explore the tricky landscape of love and friendship. This is considered one of Truffaut’s classics, and it is no mystery why. The tale of two friends who fall for the same girl, and the kinky love triangle that eventually engulfs them all, is thoughtfully written and beautifully filmed. It’s a bit of a downer, though, because the passions that initially drive them all wind up becoming muted and sad. Their free lifestyle turns into a prison of the soul.

What initially seems free-spirited and alive about Catherine looks more and more like narcissism as the years pass. Early on, her character has an almost feminist aura, as she seeks to have the same power and freedom as her male companions. Tragically, she winds up looking self-absorbed and destructive. As much as she annoys me though, it is Jules whom I really dislike. His need to be with Catherine is so great that he is willing to tolerate ANY behavior on her part. His weakness is a crutch that allows her weakness to worsen. Jim, the most likeable of them, is only marginally better. He can at least summon up the gumption to be jealous of Catherine, but his constant wavering between her and his steady girlfriend in Paris dooms both loves. Come to think of it, why does Jim’s girlfriend tolerate this over the years? This movie is absolutely lousy with people who have no self-respect!

Most of my impressions from this film are negative, but I didn’t completely dislike it. I’m sure there is a variety of opinion on this tale, which was based on the real-life experiences of Henri-Pierre Roche, who wrote the novel on which it is based. Those more tolerant of human frailty might celebrate these characters for breaking with convention, even if it doesn’t work out well for them. As Jim describes it, they “tried to re-invent love.” The film raises questions about the emotional laws of love. Which laws are immutable, and which are societal constructs? Jim, Jules, and Catherine try to find out by breaking them all. Catherine says, “You said, ‘I love you,’ I said, ‘Wait.’ I was going to say, ‘Take me,’ you said, ‘Go away.’” This statement captures love’s confusion and bad timing, something we have all suffered. For the first half of the film, the threesome's friendship and love are truly delightful. Alas, they can never recapture that joy of their youth, and neither does the movie. For Catherine, Jim, and Jules, as for the viewer, delight gives way to delirium and despair.

3 stars out of 5

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

The Thin Man (1934)

Having already checked out a couple of films featuring the acting duo of William Powell and Myrna Loy, I decided to watch their most famous film. The pair made six Thin Man movies about detective Nick Charles and his wife Nora. (Bonus points if you recognize these as the names from the latest movie starring Michael Cera.) These movies are famous for two things: the cute dog and the cute banter between Nick and Nora. The actual mysteries are more of a sideline.

In this first Thin Man, the main theme seems to be how much Nick and Nora drink, and I must say, they can put it away. They do engage in some cute banter, too. Somewhere in there, with the help of their dog, they manage to solve a murder.

I am inclined to say that I think this film is a bit over-rated. The mystery part is okay, but it’s extremely lightweight compared to something like Bogart in “The Big Sleep.” That’s fair enough, as this is more of a comedy than a mystery, and it certainly isn’t a noir film. On that note, the witty repartee IS pretty clever, but Myrna Loy’s aloof style is starting to grate on me. William Powell, on the other hand, is a genuine pleasure to watch. He has an un-self-conscious comedy style that allows him to slip on a banana peel and still come off looking like the coolest guy in the room.

This film does have a final grace note that really wraps it up in style. Remember that this was the 1930’s, so the scenes with Nick and Nora in their bedroom feature husband and wife in separate, twin beds. Well, the end of the movie finds them on a train, and as they prepare for bed, Nora suggests that the dog should sleep on the bottom bunk with her. Next thing you know, the dog has been tossed on the top bunk by himself, and even 30’s audiences knew what that meant.

One final mystery here: Who is the Thin Man? One would assume the title refers to Nick Charles, but William Powell had a decidedly medium build. I’ll risk a spoiler by mentioning that there is a dead body that is a thin man buried in a fat man’s clothes to throw off the police. I would suspect that that is the Thin Man, but it doesn’t explain the five Thin Man sequels.

3.5 stars

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Superbad (2007)

It took me a while to get around to seeing this movie, and even longer to write about it. That’s probably because, while “Superbad” is superfunny and supercool, it doesn’t quite reach the heights of brilliance that some other films from the Judd Apatow universe have (e.g. “The 40-year-old Virgin,” and “Knocked Up”). Produced by Judd Apatow and based on a screenplay by Evan Goldberg (who wrote some episodes of “Da Ali G Show”) and Seth Rogen (who needs no introduction), “Superbad” is directed by Greg Mottola (who directed episodes of “Arrested Development” as well as some episodes of Apatow’s “Undeclared”) That’s quite a pedigree, folks, and it produced a movie that is a hilarious good time, even if it isn’t super-deep.

Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg didn’t waste a lot of creativity naming the main characters; “Superbad” follows the exploits of Seth (Jonah Hill) and Evan (Michael Cera), a couple of high school omega males preparing to graduate. These dorks enjoy flirtations with a couple of improbably hot babes, and get the chance to impress said babes by providing the booze for a graduation party. The only problem is that their ticket to that booze is their skinny friend Fogell (Chris Mintz-Plasse) and his fake ID, which claims he is McLovin (no last name), a 25-year-old, Hawaiian organ donor. Hilarity and a wild night ensue. Rogen and Bill Hader appear as a pair of fun-lovin’ cops, and Joe Lo Truglio from “The State” plays a creepy sex-offender.

By the end, “Superbad” degenerates a little into some sappy bromance stuff. I know this is intended to be sensitive and all, but it treads too much into After-School-Special territory for me. Still, the trip there is a great time.

I enjoy these “wild night” movies, in the tradition of “American Graffiti” and “Dazed and Confused.” The truth is, most of the long story arcs in our lives are too fraught with stops, starts, and overthinking to make great theater, but we can all identify with that “wild night” when anything can and does happen. That’s the part of “Superbad” that will keep me coming back for repeat viewings.

4 stars.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

The Darjeeling Limited (2007)

Somehow I got the impression that this latest outing by Wes Anderson and company wasn’t much fun, so I didn’t come into it with high hopes. Maybe this film just looks better in an atmosphere of low expectations, but I have to say that I was pleasantly surprised. This is no “Bottle Rocket” or “Rushmore,” but “The Darjeeling Limited” has a charm of its own for those who enjoy Wes Anderson’s talky, thoughtful style. For everyone else, Natalie Portman gets naked.

The story follows the Whitman brothers (Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody, and Jason Schwartzman), an emotionally stunted trio who join up for a train trip across India in order to reconnect, deal with their dad’s death, and find their mom. The trip doesn’t turn out as planned, but as often happens in life, the journey itself winds up having value.

This film was way more fun than I expected. Besides the naked Portman (in a short film called “Hotel Chevalier,” intended as a prelude to the movie on the DVD), there is a lot of understated humor and just some good acting. Owen Wilson overdoes it a bit, and really just plays his character from “Bottle Rocket,” but Adrien Brody makes up for that. I wouldn’t rank “The Darjeeling Limited” up there with “Rushmore,” which represents the height of Wes Anderson’s work thus far, but it’s clearly better than “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou.”

3 stars

Thursday, November 06, 2008

A Brief Political Note

This is supposed to just be a movie journal, but the recent election is simply too historic not to say anything about it. Politically, I’m pretty mixed up. I drive around in a Prius with a concealed weapon. I’m a doctor, and I would like to hang on to my income, but (or maybe because of what I already know) I’m not that afraid of socialized health care. Fittingly, I have mixed feelings about this election. Barack Obama is certainly an inspiring speaker, and if he keeps his word on avoiding divisive politics to focus on solutions to real problems, he could be a great president. On the other hand, my default setting is to distrust the government, and that instinct has rarely been wrong. I am not thrilled about having a president and a Congress in the same party, especially the Democratic party, because let’s face it, a hard-working, well-paid, gun-toting, straight, white male has more to lose with this party in power. If Obama turns out to be just another politician and allows his party to pursue their various evil schemes, my life is going to suck.

If that happens, who will I blame? The Democrats, sure, but keep in mind that they really can’t help themselves. Those pointy heads and bleeding hearts are a handicap against rational thinking. The real villains in this election cycle are the Republicans, who were given the reins of power and didn’t just abuse them, but literally squandered them on trifles. Instead of balancing the budget, once a Republican theme, they took bribes. They talked about the sanctity of marriage, then stayed up late at night trying to keep Mark Shiavo from pulling his wife’s feeding tube, per her express wishes. Instead of protecting our liberties from big government, they tapped our phones and tortured people. Instead of working to find a balanced solution to global warming, they ignored it, and spent their time playing grab-ass in airport bathrooms. John McCain made some mistakes, the largest being Sarah Palin, but the Republicans spent the last eight years losing this election. The Republican party today is corrupt, inept, and defiled. The only Americans they represent now are fundamentalist Christians, but if Jesus were alive today he would go through the Republican convention with a cat ‘o nine tails.

Alright, I feel better now. Back to the movies.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Stardust (2007)

If you blink, you’ll miss Neil Gaiman’s name in the credits, but “Stardust” is based on his graphic novel of the same name. I struggle to understand why everyone hasn’t recognized Gaiman as one of our greatest living storytellers, but I seem to be part of a not-so-vocal minority in thinking so. Apparently, everyone didn’t flock to theaters for this one. “Stardust” grossed about $38 million at U.S. box offices, just over half of its $70 million budget. Looks like almost everybody missed a really entertaining story.
Relative newcomer Charlie Cox plays Tristan, a dreamer of a lad living in the village of Wall. The town is so named because of the wall lying just outside, which, it turns out, guards a magical world of witches, unicorns, and princesses. One night a falling star is seen to land somewhere beyond the wall, and Tristan, desperate to win the heart of the town beauty (Sienna Miller), pledges to fetch the star back for her. It turns out that on the magical side of the wall, a falling star is not a chunk of meteorite, but a beautiful babe (Claire Danes). Undaunted, Tristan gamely tries to escort the star back to Wall through a gauntlet of witches, pirates, and greedy princes.
This is fun stuff, folks! Sure, it’s a fairly tale, but one for adults. As with most fairy tales, you tend to know generally where the story is going, but it’s a fun trip getting there. There are definitely a few surprises along the way. I don’t think you will see Robert De Niro’s performance coming unless you have been warned. Michelle Pfeiffer is brilliant as a witch intent on cutting out the star’s heart for its youth-restoring qualities. “Stardust” also boasts Peter O’Toole, and even Ricky Gervais makes an appearance. It’s a heady mix of talent, and everyone is obviously having a good time.
Neil Gaiman has a funny, bitter short story about a guy trying to get a screenplay made into a film. I imagine he must have had some unsatisfying Hollywood experiences before. Still, I can’t see that he has a great deal to complain about in “Stardust.” Obviously, it doesn’t follow his narrative exactly, and the tone may have been lightened a bit, but I think this is a movie adaptation Gaiman should be proud of. This isn’t a film for young children, but for older kids and adults with some imagination, this is a well-made bit of light entertainment.

4 stars