27 September 2006

96. the hustler

the movie starts, and before you know it, you are inside the story. with little fanfare, you are introduced to a semi-secret society, a backdoor world of gambling and men who act like men -- they smoke, they drink, the play poker in smoky back rooms.

paul newman is fast eddie, and he's the main character, but he isn't a hero. he's a talented pool player, sure, but he doesn't have much else going for him. and even his pool playing skills are hampered by the fact that he has too much pride and ego -- he thinks too much of himself -- and it gets in the way of his game, makes him lack that function that lets him quit while he's ahead. call it the gambler's curse.

the movie is structured strangely. the first half hour or so consists of fast eddie getting to and playing the biggest game of his life. because of his achille's heel, he loses. and the rest of the movie consists of trials and challenges that he has to go through before he can go back and play that fateful game again -- and win this time.

to win, he has to be broken down completely. he has to learn how to let himself be loved, in this case by a crippled yet beautiful young woman. he has to learn to curb his desire to roam, give himself to her. "what's your idea of love? chains?" no, but it is being there. he has to lose the girl to realize what he lost.

he has to lose more pool to take care of that pesky pride. he has to learn that he's not the best at what he does, and that talent alone will only take you so far. he has to get his thumbs broken to wipe that charming smile off his face.

and he has to go back and play the game with a new ferocious fever. he has to play the game deeper, dance with it, and beat his opponent with more than talent -- with conviction. because he is a loser, that much is true. but this is the one thing he is good at, and he is taking it to the top. which can look suspiciously like the bottom if you've got the right eyes.

26 September 2006

the life aquatic with steve zissou

the Conventional Wisdom regarding wes anderson seems to be that he's not doing so hot. those in the know say "bottle rocket" was a great debut, "Rushmore" was a masterwork, "Royal Tenebaums" was overload, and this...well, that this was just too much. they say he's too mired in the details, too much production design, too idiosyncratic, too interested in the soundtrack, no heart. if he keeps it up, he'll be washed up.

i beg to differ.

the thing of it is, i didn't really like "bottle rocket". there were some cute things in it, but it didn't do much for me. same with "rushmore". i thought talia shire's kid did a good job playing the lead, and i thought bill murray was good as ever, but i didn't connect with the movie all that much. i liked it intellectually, but not emotionally. so i was skeptical about all the wes anderson love.

that all changed with "the royal tenenbaums". here was a movie that was huge, with a prologue that had to establish both a startingly large array of characters and a colorfully alternate version of new york that has never existed. but he also doessomething much trickier: he lends an air of melancholy and failure to every frame, yet doesn't weigh the whole thing down. its hard enough to make a scene move, but to do it under those heavy circumstances (and play it for comedy!) and give the audience emotion -- that's probably the hardest thing you could do as a filmmaker.

so now we come to "the life aquatic". this was to be wes anderson's debutante ball, where he would get a great budget and film in italy and have some action set-pieces and really break out. but you know what? its really more of the same, but on a bigger and deeper scale. and you know what? its fucking great.

for one thing, the movie is fucking funny. i would argue that its as laugh-a-minute as "airplane", except the jokes are bone-dry or are a form of insult, and thus, not laugh-out-loud funny. also, the production design and art direction are fantastic. some would say that's a hindrance, but i think what wes does that is great is he creates these details to form a world slightly off from ours, and therefore emotional moments play better and larger because we are off-balance and can relate to his characters -- they are like us, but not too like us.

but the real reason i like the movie is that it really is about what its like to make a film. forget all the fun sea exploration and all that -- much like "rear window" was about the voyuerism inherent in the act of watching movies, this movie is about the difficulty in the process of making movies. that's why you need to see a diorama-like cross-section of the ship -- its a "behind-the-scenes" view of a set. that's why he's outside smoking a joint during the premier of his movie -- its the process for him, not the result, and the screening is a moot point by the time you're through shooting. that's why there's so much talk during the movie about losing funding for his program. that's why everyone is also doing something. that's why there's a huge cast of characters. that's why there are interns.

and that's why, when they finally go to get the jaguar shark, its bill murray (the surrogate director) at the helm of the ship, with all those players around him. and when they see the shark (the final cut or print of the film), they all congratulate him. "it's beautiful, steve," someone says while they all clasp his shoulder.

13 September 2006

97. the searchers

this is what we think of when we think of a western. which is weird, considering the fact that, to my knowledge, it was the first "revisionist" western, a genre picture that reflected and commented on some of the aspects of the genre that other films treated more matter-of-factly: blantant racism, misogyny, and particularly violence and the meaning of vengence. but by ruminating on these things, ford and wayne made one of, if not the most, seminal westerns, and still manages to give us what (think) we want: gorgeous photography from monument valley, a colorful cast of characters, white actors painted to look like indians, comic relief, a lone hero on a life-or-death mission.

the genius of the movie is that the lone hero is john wayne, and, as opposed to his earlier movies, he is a fucking monster.
there are several things to explain ethan's rage at the indians. two are obvious and explicit in the film: they killed his brother and his brother's family; he's an old confederate soldier, still bitter about the war. but then there are two more subtle reasons that explain his insane rage and give the film considerable more depth: his mother was killed by indians, which you can see briefly on a tombstone right before the ranch gets raided; he was in love with his brother's wife, and may have fathered some of her children. watch the tender way he kisses her on the forehead the last time he sees her, and the way he is utterly devastated when he sees the ranch on fire. he rides closer and sees her body and punches his companion for trying to see it too -- the pain is deeper for him, and he wants to keep it to himself.

its breathtaking to watch wayne's work in this movie, and the way that john ford used the conventions of the genre, as well as wayne's already iconic status, to push-and-pull the audience and challenge their expectations. you go into john wayne movie expecting a hero, but what happens when, while he's on his quest, he shoots an already dead indian in the face? if it weren't for wayne's movie-star gravatas, we would be completely turned-off. but ford uses wayne's charisma to keep us glued to the screen, and its one of the first times (that i can recall) that a director used the star's power for a greater purpose.

that said, the movie is not written well on a micro level. there are subplots that we don't really care about, such as the love story between charlie and his chick; there's too much exposition in the dialogue, such as ethan's confederate backstory; and there's too much awkward slapstick comic relief, such as anything with mose and the pastor getting cut in the butt at the end. but the movie is great on a macro level, because it uses the western as a universal myth, with broad themes and a huge canvas.

so, looking back at this film and "the wild bunch", it would seem that the western functions not in its details, but, like a great cinemascope establishing shot, its about the big picture, the stuff of myth that stays in our memories. and if all we really come away with from "the searchers" is that final shot of ethan returning the girl, but remaining outside, then that is enough.

the wire

all right, so this is supposed to be a movie blog, right? but here's the thing: this is a show that is better than most movies. there's that old assumption that movies are more artful than tv shows, but that has been seriously challenged in the past decade or so, with stand-out shows like "twin peaks", "the sopranos", and now, "the wire".

rob has seriously been pushing this one, and there's a reason why: this show is so dense, layered, and detailed that even though it sounds like a cliche, the show really acts less like a show than a great novel.

the news came in today that they are picking this shit up for a fifth season, so check it out. and god bless hbo.