Archive for the ‘Beards’ Category

The Tourist 2010

 

THE TOURIST   THE TOURIST

 

 

THE TOURIST was co-written and directed by a man named Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, and now that I’ve written that name once, I’m already running low on my daily allotment of consonants.  It has script contributions from both Christopher McQuarrie and Julian Fellowes, though you’d never notice the signposts of either writer.  Try to imagine a movie that falls between THE USUAL SUSPECTS/ THE WAY OF THE GUN and GOSFORD PARK/ DOWNTON ABBEY.  The supporting cast includes Paul Bettany, Timothy Dalton, Rufus Sewell, and Steven Berkoff (Victor Maitland from BEVERLY HILLS COP!), so that could go either way.  It was based on a 2005 French movie called ANTHONY ZIMMER, starring Sophie Marceau.  There’s only one way to take a step up from Sophie Marceau.

They say that movie stars don’t matter anymore.  They say that SFX and superheroes have taken over, and people don’t go to watch people the way they used to.  If nothing else, THE TOURIST worked as a repudiation of that theory.  The movie made back double its huge budget and was nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Comedy, despite not being even a little bit funny absolutely at all.  (The foreign press does love to tipple.)

People went to see THE TOURIST for Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp.  There’s no other reason I can imagine.  There are some illustrious names in the credits — John Seale shot the movie and James Newton Howard did the score — but between the look and the sound of it, this movie could have just as easily happened in the 1990s.  It’s a Euro-KNIGHT & DAY, but in 2010 people were more interested in Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie than they were in Cameron Diaz and Tom Cruise.  That’s just how it shook out.  They wanted to watch two of the world’s biggest and best-looking movie stars take a vacation.

I know people who simply hated this movie, but I didn’t.  Don’t get me wrong: I wasn’t into it, but I get it.  I mean, if you’re a super-beautiful movie star and you have the time, why not go to Venice?

The set-up of this movie is akin to a classic Hitchcockian wrong-man thriller, but if that’s the case it’s a lot more THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH ’56 than NORTH BY NORTHWEST.  Johnny Depp plays a supposedly-mild-mannered schoolteacher named Frank Tupelo (to be fair, that’s a great name) who is on a train to Venice when he is swept up in the gravity of a glamorous undercover agent in the form of Angelina Jolie.  Hijinks do ensue.

I do like that this is a movie willing to directly address the fact that one of its characters looks like Angelina Jolie.  Depp’s character sees her and immediately audio-auto-corrects.  “FUCK! …You’re ravenous.”  Lady’s got Johnny M’F’in’ Depp mesmerized.  I buy that.  For a minute, at least.  THE TOURIST does strain the believability of Johnny Depp as a hapless schmuck long past its recognizable limits.  It got to the point where I was focusing on the fact that Johnny Depp speaks in a perfect American accent in this movie whereas he has that weird Robin Williams accent when he talks in interviews.  Is he putting us on in real life?  I don’t think this line of thinking is where Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck wanted our minds to go.

Crap.  I used up a lot more consonants.  Didn’t expect I’d have to do that again.

THE TOURIST isn’t a great movie.  All of its action scenes are pretty boring so the music has to work overtime to compensate.  There are a bunch of double-crosses and even a surprising reveal or two, but I kind of dozed through them and wasn’t much moved to care.  Some people hate this movie, but I don’t think it’s a movie to hate.  It’s a movie to forget.  It’s forgettable.  If you’ve seen the poster, you’ve seen the movie.  What was I talking about again?

 

@jonnyabomb

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The Big Lebowski.  To watch it once is sublime.  To watch it twenty times is sublime twenty times.  To watch it with a full crowd is probably about as much fun as is legally possible within city limits.  I’ve seen it with small groups many times, but I’ve only actually seen it with a crowd once, back in 1998 when it was first released.  As the credits rolled, my buddy and I turned to each other and both said, “I could’ve watched that all day.”  The rest of the world has since come to share in our enlightenment.  In the intervening years, the Lebowski legend has only grown, and pretty much everyone with a brain and a soul and a sense of humor is in agreement.

It’s actually really hard to write about The Big Lebowski because it’s such well-trod turf and because it’s such an individualistic piece of work that its primary charms are in watching it, not having it described to you.  Of course, if you know your film history, you know that The Big Lebowski didn’t spring up out of nowhere — it’s a fairly direct takeoff of Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep, starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall (a distant relative of yours truly, for the record).  I was lucky enough in 1998 to have just chanced to watch The Big Sleep for the first time about a week before I saw The Big Lebowski for the first time.  I can’t possibly understate how
much funnier The Big Lebowski is when you’re in on the joke:  The pointed difference between 1940s Los Angeles and 1990s Los Angeles, the jazzy past versus the country-Western present, the labyrinthine mystery plot that one suspects even the screenwriters couldn’t decipher (and in The Big Lebowski at least, treat as almost an afterthought), and most of all. Jackie Treehorn’s dick drawing.

In The Big Sleep, Humphrey Bogart tries to get a vital clue from running a pencil over the indentations of a notepad.  In The Big Lebowski, Jeff Bridges attempts the same trick, only to find that his adversary has been idly doodling penises while on the phone.  That joke is incredibly hilarious on its own, but once you realize that it’s a spoof of a deadly-serious source, it becomes transcendently funny.

The Coens’ brilliant inspiration was to take a Chandleresque noir set-up, and then drop two amazing and ridiculous characters into it to see how they’d handle things.  First there’s Jeff Bridges as The Dude, about which plenty has been written and said but not as often the fact that the character is based off a real person the Coens know.  And then there’s John Goodman as the bellowing and verbose gun nut Walter, who again is a stroke of genius even if you don’t know that he is playing a real person with very little exaggeration.  John Milius is a writer and filmmaker who was an early confederate of Steven Spielberg and the 1970s film-school generation, who had a hand in the writing of the Indianapolis speech in Jaws and in one of the Dirty Harry sequels, and who made the vastly misunderstood and thoroughly awesome 1982 adaptation of the Conan The Barbarian pulp stories.  If you’ve ever listened to the incredible DVD commentary for Conan The Barbarian, you’d know that what John Goodman is actually doing in The Big Lebowski is a pitch-perfect John Milius impersonation.

Goodman.

Milius.

Like I say, The Big Lebowski is funny enough without knowing these little factlets, but it becomes a new level of comedic achievement when seen in that light.

Another great joke of The Big Lebowski is that for a movie about confused bowlers of conflicting political ideologies solving mysteries, it is as impeccably crafted as any prestige picture.  The photography by Roger Deakins is typically beautiful, the editing by the legendary Roderick Jaynes is crisp and sharp.  Just think back on those elaborately-choreographed and inventive Busby Berkeley dream-sequence numbers.  This isn’t lazy filmmaking by any stretch.  It’s as smart and as artistic as any so-called “Best Picture.”

The Coens are such an interesting case.  They work in two distinct modes: madcap and noir.  The first mode is exemplified by their comedies, a la Raising Arizona.  The second mode is the Miller’s Crossing mode, which dates all the way forward to their recent triumph No Country For Old Men.  (There’s actually a third, far more esoteric and personal mode, which includes movies like Barton Fink and A Serious Man, but that’s a subject for another day).  The Big Lebowski comes down stronger on the side of comedy, though it’s an intriguing blend of madcap and noir.  The stakes, as far as The Dude and Walter know, are real:  A young woman could be killed if they don’t deliver a ransom.  But the fact that these two guys are the world’s least-qualified messengers, who spend their private-dick downtime at the bowling alley, is what makes the movie so fresh and so funny.

For having said up front that The Big Lebowski is hard to write about, I sure have found plenty of words.  I guess it IS fun to write about.  But I’d still rather go watch it again.

The Big Lebowski is screening tonight FOR FREE in Central Park.

And I’m 24-7 over here: @jonnyabomb

There is a scene in THE DICTATOR that’s as crazy and as silly and as smart and as funny as you wanted the entirety of the movie to be.  It happens towards the end, and it’s not quite as long as it could be, and it isn’t really enough to make up for the dry sandbag thud which the rest of the movie generally is.

THE DICTATOR is funny and clever in fits and starts, but we expect more out of Sacha Baron Cohen than fits and starts.  I mean, don’t we?  This is the king of banzai comedy here.  Da Ali G Show, still arguably his finest hour to date, was genuinely transgressive and equally hilarious.  Note I said “banzai”, not bonsai.  I’m talking surprise attacks, not finely-tended gardening.

BORAT was both — a genuine surprise, even to those of us who saw it coming, and a strongly-sculpted piece of screen comedy.  BRUNO was underrated but also lesser, being a bit too similar in structure to BORAT to be able to genuinely surprise.  Now with THE DICTATOR, we’re back on fully-scripted territory, out of the field and on location with trained actors.  That’s not great, I guess, since we ended up with something closer to the Ali G movie than to the HBO show.

No comedian working today has made a career out of the unexpected quite like Sacha Baron Cohen. But at the same time, a pattern is forming.  We’re not in Adam Sandler territory yet, but there are some obvious formula elements creeping into the process.  It’s getting to the point where, with Sacha Baron Cohen comedies, we’re primed to expect characters with silly voices and accents, with a devilish smile and a hairiness and an enthusiasm to go full-frontal and an unhealthy surplus of (now-questionably lovable) anti-Semitism.  His characters foreigners obsessed with American celebrities, autocrats who surround themselves with sidekicks and love interests who are at once smarter and stupider than the men they follow and love.  The particulars may change, but the rest we’re pretty much used to.  Again, that’s fine if you’re Adam Sandler, who has been (sadly to one-time fans) generally putting in the bare minimum and reaping massive rewards for the trouble, but from Sacha Baron Cohen, we expect better, we expect smarter, we expect the unexpected.  It’s his own damn fault for hitting the heights.

In THE DICTATOR, what ought to be subtleties are bolded and underlined in large font.  The soundtrack cues are just one telling example.  Have you ever heard Dr. Dre’s “The Next Episode” used to sell a joke in a movie before?  How about REM’s “Everybody Hurts“?  Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On“?  Dolly Parton’s “9 To 5“?  They’re all here, together in comedy again for the hundredth time.

Maybe that’s just a pet peeve of mine.  Maybe I’m being too hard on a movie which is only trying to entertain, and which truly does have a couple sly political observations to make.  For example:  The scene where hot young actress Megan Fox plays herself in a scene where Baron Cohen’s General Aladeen has paid her for her… time may be played just a little bit too broad for my tastes, but conceptually it’s very astute, considering the fact that many of America’s biggest stars have almost literally whored themselves out to actual real-world dictators to collect easy paychecks for personal appearances and performances.

Then there are moments like the scene I referred to earlier, where Aladeen is traversing a wire in between buildings and has to empty his pockets to get across.  The increasingly odd objects he jettisons, and the pacing with which they’re discarded, make for a scene that proves what a dexterous physical comedian Baron Cohen is, and what a knowing collaborator director Larry Charles is for him.

The movie needs more scenes like this one, and less of the flat scenes between Baron Cohen and a mismatched Anna Faris as a neo-hippie ultra-liberal type.  The joke gere is that her unwavering gender politics can in their way be as monomaniacal as Aladeen’s dictatorship, but that’s not a joke I buy into.  I don’t think Baron Cohen or Charles do either; even in jest, you couldn’t possibly compare Rachel Maddow to Idi Amin, or even to George W. Bush.  Faris’ character may be irritating, but she’s never wrong.  So the joke doesn’t stick.

I haven’t done much specific plot recap.  That’s because I don’t want to spoil too many jokes.  THE DICTATOR does have a lot of them, and some of them are well worth your time.  I guess what I’m saying is that, unlike Sacha Baron Cohen’s very best work, you can feel the gears turning in THE DICTATOR .  It’s too easy to immediately determine the concepts in the conceptual humor.  It’s leading the witness.  Usually Baron Cohen lets you come to the joke, rather then foisting it upon you.  Or else he totally bushwhacks you with the joke.  THE DICTATOR doesn’t feel as spontaneous as his best stunts.  You can spot the invisible net.  The movie is fine, but it’s not up to the high standards set by one of the world’s most nimble comic artists.

THE DICTATOR is now available on DVD and Blu-Ray.

Pillory me for my insubordination over on Twitter:  @jonnyabomb

True Grit was my favorite movie of 2010.  There wasn’t much hesitation there.  I saw it and I made that decision right quick.  Normally there’s a fair amount more deliberation in my mind over such declarations, but movies so impeccably mounted and  raucously enjoyable on a simultaneous basis are rare enough that it gave me the instant courage to say so.  I admit it’s a tenuous climb out on a slender limb to advocate for the greatness of a Coen Brothers movie, but that’s just me.  I take the big risks. 

In True Grit, the great Jeff Bridges plays Marshal Reuben “Rooster” Cogburn, a grouchy slob of a drunk with an eyepatch over one eye and a burning enthusiasm for frontier justice in the other.  True Grit was originally a novel by Charles Portis, and then it was a movie in 1969, in the cool-down phase of John Wayne’s long career.  I regret to admit that I haven’t seen that earlier movie, but I have read the book so I can tell you that the Coen Brothers’ rendition is eminently faithful to Portis in both spirit and text.

True Grit is the closest we’ve come so far to a mainstream, crowd-pleasing Coen Brothers movie.  It has all the virtues and eccentricities and technical brilliance that the Coens have taught us to expect from them, but it also is just a bit more conventional than usual.  The heroes are actually heroic, for one thing.  There’s the aforementioned Jeff Bridges, as charismatic and ingratiating as ever, even when he’s playing a character that often looks as lousy as he often acts.  There’s Matt Damon as Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (pronounced “La Beef”), the uptight lawman who ends up as a reluctant teammate.   Matt Damon is hilarious in this movie, toning down his impeccable way of making an audience believe he can do anything, until he appears to be a total dunce, only to end up surprising you all over again.

But before these two guys enter into the story, and after they leave it too, there’s Mattie Ross, played by the young Hailee Steinfeld.  Mattie’s father was killed by an outlaw named Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), and she wants him brought to justice. She hires Marshall Cogburn, because she’s heard he has “true grit,” and insists that she get to accompany him in the pursuit.  (For a pre-adolescent in a man’s belchy, farty world, she’s ridiculously, brilliantly persuasive.)  LaBoeuf, already in pursuit of Chaney across state lines, joins them.  Nobody gets along. 

The confrontational banter between the three main characters is some of the most pure joy that movies can provide.  Obviously the Coens provide some of the most distinct and musical dialogue of any writers around, but it should be said that a lot of the dialogue in this film comes directly from Portis’ novel.  The Coens, as one of the most unique filmmaking forces to emerge from America in the past thirty years, aren’t exactly known for their skillful facility with adaptations, but they should be — it is a part of their resume.  Their planned adaptations of James Dickey’s To The White Sea and Elmore Leonard’s Cuba Libre have yet to be realized, but of course they reached new heights with their 2007 adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s No Country For Old Men.  They also know their detective fiction; as their debut, Blood Simple, referenced the work of Dashiell Hammett, and their most popular movie, The Big Lebowski, is essentially a take-off of The Big Sleep, originally a Raymond Chandler novel.  The Coens know how to enliven the work and the influence of others while bringing their own individualistic stamp to it.  They know their pulp literature and they know their film history, and they bring all of it to bear in True Grit.

Did someone say “bear”?

Bear!

Yeah, there’s a lot of humor in True Grit, both ridiculous and profound.  The trailers and promotional materials have emphasized the pure badass-ness of the movie – and that’s there, no mistake – but it’s a wonderful surprise to discover how hysterical it is.  It’s funny even in its most tragic moments, just like real life.  There’s a black humor and a sharp tang to the unsentimental nature of the movie, and it’s totally refreshing to experience, particularly at a time of year that can either go too sweet or too sour.  The tone of True Grit isn’t too treacly and it isn’t too harsh.  It’s just right.  (There goes that bear reference again…)

True Grit is really kind of perfect, from the imagery captured by the legendary Roger Deakins, to the wonderful score by underrated Coen regular Carter Burwell, to the two memorably uglied-up and weirdly compelling villains of the piece, Josh Brolin and Barry Pepper as Lucky Ned.  It should get repetitive to note how dependably watchable Matt Damon and the Coens are, but it really doesn’t.  They’re that good.  Everyone involved in this project is working at the peak of their respective craft. 

But in the end, if there’s a defining feature of this movie, it will be that unusual, indelible relationship between the two riding companions, Rooster Cogburn and Mattie Ross, and there are no two more ideal actors on the planet (or in the throughways of time and space) to play them than Jeff Bridges and Hailee Steinfeld.  There’s something both truly real-world relatable and movie-perfect that happens in the alchemy of casting and characters here.  The magic that occurs between the two of them make True Grit something truly special, even by the absurdly high standards that the Coen Brothers have set for themselves and for the rest of us. 

@jonnyabomb.

True Grit is now playing at MoMA, since it has been officially added to their library of notable and classic films.

  

  

As something are a bonus, here are some random thoughts and observations that passed through my head as I watched True Grit on subsequent occasions and couldn’t settle on how to edit into my main review:

  • One thing that cracks me up is that this is the Coens’ idea of a kids’ movie (*).  I completely approve, don’t get me wrong, but it brings to mind the notion of a Clint Eastwood Preparatory School For Girls.  (Actually, that very thing happened once, in The Beguiled, and it didn’t work out too well for anyone.)

 

  • True Grit is as close as the Coens will probably ever get to convention, but it’s still as unusually wonderful as any of their original creations.  It is, actually, aside from all the talk of killing, not unsuitable for younger folks.  There’s a keen moral streak running through this movie, distinctly and typically contradictingly American.  And it’s an absolute celebration of language.

 

  • Between the first and second times I saw the movie, I read the original novel by Charles Portis.  It’s striking to see how closely the Coens stuck to the original text in their adaptation.  Some of the stuff you’d swear they invented were already there, although some, like the bear suit guy and the hanging man, were Coen additions.  Much of the dialogue is spoken verbatim from the book, and how wonderful that is.

 

  • Mattie doesn’t shed a tear when presented with her father’s dead body.  She doesn’t shed a tear, until later on, when she’s handed his gun.  Then the water trickles down.  This is a distinctly American touch.

 

  • In both the book and the film, the major setpieces are more often structured around language than incident.  (The haggling over horses, the courtroom scene, the campfire scenes, etc.)  In other words, the conversations are as important and as thrilling, if not moreso, than the shootouts.

 

  • J.K. Simmons vocal cameo as Lawyer Daggett!  (Daggett is a  character with slightly more of a presence in the Portis book.)

 

 

  • The climactic snakepit scene is very strongly foreshadowed, the closer you watch the movie.

 

  • Barry Pepper (as the badman Lucky Ned) is such a great, unfairly-unheralded actor.  Just always good.

 

  • The guy who makes all those crazy animal sounds, believe it or not, is in the book.  The Coens didn’t make him up, although I would’ve sworn to it.

 

  • Tom Chaney turns out to be exactly the way Mattie had him pegged, a wretch and a whiner.  Dumb: “I must think on my situation and how I may improve it.”  And mopily repetitive:  “Everything is against me.”  (Pretty cool of leading-man-type Josh Brolin to be willing to play such a lame-ass.)

 

  • Speaking of which, again I say, how ridiculously consistent is Matt Damon?  Does that dude have to be so good at everything?  Obviously Jeff Bridges and little Hailee Steinfeld are totally incredible in this movie, but don’t take what Matt Damon does here for granted.   He lets himself be the butt of the joke, almost until you forget that he isn’t.  So well done, this supporting act.

 

  • The valiant end of Mattie’s horse just guts me, every single time.

 

  • In fact, the end of the movie is so damn sad.  Bittersweet, I guess, but seeing as it’s about how quick life can go, even leavened with humor and optimism as it is, that’s a sad topic.

 

  • Some of the all-time great lines in literature are in this movie:

“Fill your hand, you sonuvabitch!”  [Bridges’ reading trounces Wayne’s, I venture to say.]

“The love of decency does not abide in you.”

“I’ve grown old.” [Best part is the Chewbacca sigh that Bridges does right after he says it.]

“Time just gets away from us.”

“This is like women talking.”

The last one is how I plan to end most of my conversations from now on, by the way.

This is like women talking.  Just watch this movie already.