Saturday, January 31, 2015

Retro Trio: The Great Beauty (2013); Hara-Kiri: The Death of a Samurai (2011); Bad Santa (2003)

This is Gep, in one of the countless amazing shots presented
in this outstanding movie.
The Great Beauty (2013)

Original Italian Title: La Grande Bellezza

Director: Paulo Sorrentino

An outstanding film, with an embarrassment of film technique riches.

For the first ten minutes or so of The Great Beauty, one might think they've been lured into an endless patchwork of visual imagery, with no clear or personal narrative. The film opens with several sequences of tourists marveling at and photographing some of the well-worn paths and sights of Rome, to a background of choir song. We then shift to a raucous nighttime party, which includes revelers of various ages and states of drunkenness and euphoria. Just when you think that film is simply going to be a visual panorama of the ancient city and its denizens, though, the film slows and focuses on a dapper gentleman in his sixties, who begins to narrate his perspective. This is Gep Gambardella - the heart and soul of The Great Beauty.

Gep is a writer who has produced nothing for over three decades. In his youth, though, he wrote a modern Italian masterpiece. Rather than build on this success by continuing his craft, though, he changed his goal to becoming the grandmaster of the Roman socialite scene. And he succeeded. For years and years, he was the epicenter of the social and artistic party world in the city.

Now, however, Gep is growing weary of the endless dance. Following Gep around the city, as he searches for more meaningful personal connections and even contemplates taking up his pen again, is a fantastic trip. He is affable, incredibly insightful and imaginative, and humorous, despite occasionally wearing his condescension on his sleeve. Watching Gep slowly disconnect from the shallower, more carnal, material realm that has been his comfort zone for so long, while he tries to reconnect with his own artistic nature, is captivating. And with his writer's eye, he is always aware of his own actions, in multiple contexts, and his commentary is priceless.

This vibrant sequence, in addition to being a visually dazzling,
has a depth, complexity, and tragedy to it that can only be
experienced by viewing the film. It's one of many of its kind in
the movie.
If Gep provides the emotional and intellectual substance of the film, cinematographer Luca Bigazzi provides the visual substance. Like an amazing number of Italian films, nearly every shot and sequence is perfectly framed and executed. You could pause the film at nearly any moment and be looking at something that could be hanging in an art gallery. Both the expansive exterior landscape shots and the interiors of the classical buildings are presented in all their glory, much to any film viewer's delight.

Gep's is a very personal story, but the context in which is occurs is just as important a theme. The writer's perspective has shifted to one of disgust for the hedonism that has consumed much of his city, including himself. It is a harsh criticism, and one that predictably resulted in confusion and outright anger from Italian intellectuals and artists who saw the film. Whether this was because they thought it was a gross, self-hating misrepresentation or whether they were uncomfortable seeing their own reflections a little too clearly, I can only guess.

The Great Beauty is too rich a film to adequately encapsulate in a post like this one. It should be clear, though, that I greatly enjoyed the film and will enjoy another viewing of it. Highly recommended.

Hara-Kiri: The Death of a Samurai (2011)

Director: Miike, Takashi

I was excited about this movie, having thoroughly enjoyed Miike's 13 Assassins. This other samurai period drama is equally as good, though in mostly different ways.

Hara-Kiri opens somewhat slowly, but very hypnotically. We watch as a local leader of a powerful clan of samurai grants an audience to a ragged-looking man who claims to be a ronin - a masterless samurai - who has lost his feudal lord, and who seeks to commit ritual suicide on their grounds, in an effort to reclaim his honor. The leader is quietly informed that this is likely a scam, with the ronin hoping that he will be given a modest amount of money and be sent on his way. This suspicion is confirmed when the samurai on the grounds find that the ronin's "sword" is a wooden fake. Instead of merely chiding and banishing him, they sadistically force him to go through with the suicide, with the wooden sword.

This scene is brutal to watch, as it is meant to be. What follows is a slow and painful revelation of exactly who the ronin was, and how he found himself in such dire straits. We watch a sad tale of love, poverty, and hope repeatedly dashed, forcing a young man into taking a gamble that ends horrifically.

This may all sound like a painful viewing experience, and it certainly is at several points in the film. There is much of the stuff of high melodrama, complete with tears of anguish and string music. However, there is far more to the tale to recommend it to those of us who have less interest in simply being depressed. Highly involved in the story is the young man's father-in-law, Kageyu, a former samurai of an clan who had been wiped out. When Kageyu becomes involved in his son's death, the movie becomes a study of the ostensible and often hypocritical notion of "honor" in medieval samurai culture. This analysis is what vaults this movie beyond most of its ilk.

Kageyu takes theh pose of ritual suicide, a posture that is
the touchstone for the entire picture. 
And in case you were wondering if there are any decent sword fights, the answer is a hearty "yes." Though they are few and far between for the first 90 minutes of the film or so, the movie ends with a wild one-man-versus-dozens whirlwind of sharp steel and righteous indignation. On its surface, it might seem like sensational, gratuitous action. But when you realize just what is driving that single warrior to fight so hard, the grander statement sinks in deeper and deeper. The final effect is powerful, to say the least.

Hara-Kiri: The Death of a Samurai is a great modern entry into an already-rich canon of samurai films. Highly recommended for anyone who doesn't mind a more brooding, challenging look at one of the most romanticized figures in the history of warfare.

Bad Santa (2003)

Director: Terry Zwigoff

Bad Santa is filthy, raw, and unrelenting. And it's hilarious.

The mission of this movie is clear, right from the jump: take the most cherished, purportedly selfless holiday in the land and tell a borderline-X-rated story centered on it. Mission riotously accomplished. Billy Bob Thornton plays Willie - a completely degenerate, alcoholic safe-cracker who, with his partner Marcus, poses as a mall Santa Claus in order to case the joint and rob the place blind on Christamas Eve.

You can probably guess where the humor derives from: the gloriously foul-mouthed, slovenly Willie interacting with hopeful kids is one area, but his generally fatalistic, hedonistic attitude towards the universe is the grander source of comedy. In a move that is initially self-serving, Willie invites himself into the home of Thurman - a socially awkward young boy who believes he is the real Santa Claus, and whose father is in prison for embezzlement. Willie takes every possible advantage of the naive Thurman, spewing language fit for a bar filled with drunken soldiers. Some of the funniest bits are Willie's puzzlement over Thurman's relentless attempts to gain his friendship, which Thornton converys through countless great facial expressions and deliveries of dialogue.

There's not a lot more to say about Bad Santa. If you haven't seen it, there is this clear positive: you will be able to tell whether you'll enjoy it by watching no more than the first 3 minutes. That's as long as it takes to get a sense of the film's humor, the protagonist's depravity, and the oncoming onslaught of linguistic filth. If you watch those initial moments and find yourself chuckling, then you'll certainly enjoy this extremely off-beat Christmas flick.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

New Release: The Interview (2014)

Director: Evan Goldberg

If you know Seth Rogan and James Franco (and Evan Goldberg-directed) movies, then you'll have a good idea of what to expect from The Interview. For my part, I generally find these guys' films entertaining, if not exactly the works of comic genius. This latest, highly publicized effort of theirs fits right into their canon.

Either from the previews or the massive coverage received after the hacks and threats from North Korea, you probably know the tale. James Franco plays Dave Skylark, a shallow and self-absorbed egotist of good humor who hosts a wildly popular, sensational late night "news" show. He and his producer, played by Seth Rogan, are recruited by the CIA to assassinate Kim Jong-Un, once it is discovered that Kim has agreed to an interview with Skylark, whom the young dictator loves.

The comedy is as consistent and reliable as other Rogan/Franco flicks, which is to say, not completely. The humor is often very blue, and the rapid-fire, usually deadpan deliveries and responses to the insanity that unfolds are plenty of fun. Yes, the characters are ridiculous, but so is the entire premise of the movie. Once you realize that this is a silly parody of an assassination fantasy, then you'll stop rolling your eyes and have some solid laughs.

The writers probably overshot the mark a bit by making Dave
Skylark a bit douchier than they might have intended. 
The movie's not without its issues, though. For one, I found James Franco's Skylark character just a hair overdone at times. Clearly, he's meant to be a caricature of all flashy, narcissistic, pandering TV talk show personalities. But they make him essentially too dumb to live. It's almost as if Rogan and Franco are incapable of writing a more subtle idiot, so Skylark's continual over-the-top obliviousness can wear on you.

The bigger problem is the violence. Don't get me wrong - I have nothing against movie violence, per se (I mean, I was weaned on the mucle action flicks of the 1980s, after all). And I actually find exagerrated violence hilarious, when done properly. What is abundantly clear to me, after seeing Pineapple Express, This is the End and now The Interview (all directed by Evan Goldberg) is that these guys have no idea how to make violence funny. This leads me to this slight aside:

John Cleese once explained how, when Monty Python first screened an early shooting of the famous and hilariously bloody "bridge knight" scene in Holy Grail, they had used a modeest, almost realistic, amount of blood in the scene. Well, the test audience was horrified, and not a soul laughed. However, when the troupe added massive amounts more blood, the audiences thought the scene hysterical.

As this still indicates, you can expect plenty of penis and
testicle jokes in this one. This should surprise none who have
seen these guys' other movies. 
Therein lies the key - to make violence funny, you have to completely overdo it. Franco and Rogan haven't figured this out. The violence in The Interview is disturbingly graphic and realistic. Fingers are bitten off. A man dies a horribly gruesome death by poison. A soldier gets crushed by a tank. Multiple people get shot to death. There is plenty more, and all of it in uncomfortably graphic detail, which begs the question, "How many people actually find this comic?" I really don't. It's not that is repulses me; but it certainly doesn't amuse me, either. Fortunately, none of this really erupts until the last 30 minutes or so of the movie, making the rest of it entertaining enough.

Ultimately, I have to laud the boys for the guts to make a film about a sitting dictator known for eratic and hyperbolic responses to insult. The whole thing comes off pretty well, and it does take a stab at some social commentary, even if it is barely half-baked. The movie ended up getting far more press than it deserved, thanks to the hyper-sensitive target of their comedic aim. Without the hoopla, it is simply another decent, though hardly "classic," addition to their comedy film resumes. 

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Retro Analysis and Review of Dune (1984)

Normally, I only dedicate single-film posts to new releases or films on the "Before I Die" list that I work from. The 1984 adaptation of Dune, however, has earned the right for all the wrong reasons.


If you're wondering why I would be watching a film often mentioned among film history's all-time flops, I'm happy to explain. Recently, the very highly-acclaimed documentary Jodorowsky's Dune hit theaters. I knew I wanted to see it. However, I have also long wanted to re-read the original novel, and even re-watch the 1984 David Lynch adaptation. I figured that this would further enhance the viewing of the recent documentary. Hence...

The source novel: Dune by Frank Herbert

This is my longer review of it on Goodreads.

This 1965 novel is considered one of the all-time greats in the genre of science fiction. I read it first around fifteen years ago, but couldn't remember much of it. So I decided to give it another go. Having finished it a few weeks ago, it is now clear that I simply wasn't paying attention to what I was reading that first time. The book, though not without some very obvious weaknesses, is fantastic. There are tremendous ideas and creative speculative fiction within, and it was a great read.

Enjoying the book so much, I was anticipating my re-viewing of the 1984 film version...

Dune (1984) [Where Nearly All Goes Horribly Wrong]

I bop over to my local video store (yes, they do still exist, and yes, I'm lucky enough to live very close to one - Viva Video in Ardmore, Pennsylvania), and I ask for the movie. The eminently affable cinephile owner/manager Miguel hands me the case, telling me "Yeah, this movie's a mess. But I still love it!"
The poster was just artful enough to
make one hope for an intelligent,
engaging movie. If only...

That should have been a massive hint. Foolishly optimistic, though, I thought, "How bad could it really be?"

The answer? Really bad.

Not wanting to half-ass it, I took the full plunge and opted for the 3-hour extended cut of the film. The 176 minutes within are an exhibit of just how many cinematic missteps can be made in one movie.

First off, I should explain that I understand and respect director David Lynch. He's been a skilled and unique voice in world cinema for decades now. As strange and puzzling as his movies can be, they show singular vision and can be highly engaging to the discriminating viewer.

That being said, his missteps and some serious meddling from the producers resulted in a simply bad film.

Almost every wrong choice that could have been made was made. One need look no further than the opening ten minutes of the extended cut (which, it should be pointed out, Lynch had little to do with). The story is set in a tremendously rich and complex universe, one which would require deft and creative film storytelling to lay out for a new viewer. Instead, the movie starts with a slow close-up of the cover of the book!!! Following this was the choice to simply have rather poorly drawn illustrations and narration by what sounds like McGruff the Crime Dog explain the entire political landscape to us. For over ten minutes. It's almost unwatchable. But I soldiered on.

Once the astoundingly clunky opening sequences are through, we get to feast our eyes on the live action. Immediately, it is clear that the aesthetic is drawn from every over-stylized, dated fashion of 1970s science fiction (think Flash Gordon, with a better budget). The actors, many of whom are classically trained and prestigious, go full-on operatic with the performances. This would be fine, except that the script is so insanely heavy with exposition that things crawl at a maddening pace. My wife, who has never read the book or seen the movie but was willing to give it a shot, threw her hands up and left the room after fifteen minutes. And I didn't blame her for a second.

Things only get more muddled as the film goes forward. All sort of interesting elements from the book are thrown into the film, but without any innovative ways to explain them, Lynch simply opted for endless voice-over narration to convey the characters' inner thoughts. While voice-over can occasionally enhance a film, it is generally considered a massive crutch in what should be a visual medium. And it's not just one or two characters' heads that we are in, but nearly every one with more than two minutes of screen time gets their little musings voiced over. It was a pretty lazy cop-out.

The story itself, while not exactly getting butchered, is pared down and modified in odd ways. The movie introduces a "sound weapon" used by the Atreides family that is not in the book. I can only presume that this was the script writer's attempt to create a "cool" device that might be the "light saber" of this movie. Well, it's not. In fact, it's rather ridiculous. The warriors who use them have to wear a restrictive-looking choker around their necks, with a cumbersome microphone sticking in front of their mouths. I'm no soldier, but I'd probably not want to go charging into battle with something that would, should I stumble and fall, crush my windpipe. Then there are the bizarre "heart plugs" that the Harkonnens use, which seem some strange insertion of Lynch's hallmark body horror movies.

Brad Dourif as Piter de Vries (right) is the most obvious
example of misplaced camp in the movie. He and everyone in
House Harkonnen is laughably over the top.
The characters themselves are mostly one- or two-dimensional archetypes that never give the impression of being real humans at all. Admittedly, this was one of the main weaknesses of the novel, but a good screen writer could have imbued them with a little more depth and complexity. Instead, everyone is either purely noble or purely evil. As with all such stories, the result is a big fat bore.

The music. My god, the music. I'm amazed that anyone would have honestly tried to emulate the anthemic hard rock soundtrack of the campy 1980 Flash Gordon (again?), but try it they did. It's bad enough on its own, but it's rendered even more ridiculous when cast against just how pretentious the film is in most other areas. At least the Queen soundtrack went along with the self-aware, silly tone of Flash Gordon. Dune can make no such claims.

The overall effect of the acting, visuals, and music is what one would expect from the campy TV mini-series which were in their heyday just before Dune was released. This is fine when you sit down to watch The Thornbirds or Shogun, but it's simply laughable when you try to tell an intelligent and rich, epic tale of speculative fiction. As it was, they might as well have cast Richard Chamberlain as Paul Atreides. At least then, viewers wouldn't have been blindsided.

I will say that I found two things of merit, though they are relatively small ones. One is the way Lynch portrays the Spice Guild Navigators. This is something that is not described until later novels in the series, the Guild being highly reclusive. The film, though, gives us grotesque and fascinating creatures that, though once presumably human, have been warped and twisted by long-term use of "the spice," melange, which is what allows the Navigators to bend time and space. In addition to the Navigators are the still-suits worn by the Fremen on Arrakis, which do actually look quite cool. So cool, in fact, that I had to wonder whether the movie blew its budget on designing and making the still suits, leaving it far less money to dedicate to other aspects of the film which came off as rather cheap.

If David Lynch's Dune has any value today, it is mostly as fodder for a Mystery Science Theater 3000 working over. I was actually doing this myself, and by myself, during the last hour of the movie. The film would actually be great fun in this way, if you were watching with a few friends. Hardly what David Lynch had in mind, I'm sure.

Dune, the TV series (2000)

In 2000, the Sci-Fi channel put together a 3-part adaptation of Dune for TV. I watched it for the first time, and it's not bad. There are certainly issues with it, some rather serious, but it's a far cry better than Lynch's misguided visions in the 1984 version.

The more limited budget resulted in cheaper-looking sets,
background effects, and costumes; however, the TV series did
a far better job cutting to the heart of the novel's themes.
This more recent TV adaptation is able to include a bit more of the source material, including more development with and between the many characters. With a full running time of nearly 4-and-a-half hours, the grander themes of Frank Herbert's story could receive much more attention, as well. We get to see the slow, painful realization of Paul that his powers, training, and breeding have led him to the inexorable and almost pitiable position of becoming a messiah. The acting is solid all around, and the script is fairly strong in many places.

There are some misfires in the series, though. The Harkonnens, while clearly evil in the novel, are made laughably one-dimensionally evil in this series. The Baron Harkonnen even spews his expositions in rhyme, which is a oddly theatrical choice. The costumes are a mixed bag. The designers clearly went for high-end, progressive flash, and it actually works in some cases. In others, the styles are hilariously bad oversights of functionality, while simply being flat-out ugly. I assume we can chalk much of this up to budget constraints.

Hard-core, purist fans of the novel will, of course, find plenty to criticize in this version. However, this is still the more faithful and better-executed adapation, compared with the 1984 job.

Jodorowsky's Dune (The Agony of Unfulfilled Potential)

If only. As if the 1984 version of Dune weren't enough to make you wish for a more competent version of the titanic novel, the knowledge of the adaptation that almost happened is crushing. This past year, the documnetary Jodorowsky's Dune was released. It traces the birth, incubation, and near-life of what might be one of the "greatest films never made."

Back in the 1970s, renegade filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky was making serious waves in the cinema world. He had directed several challenging and mind-bending films like El Topo and Holy Mountain, which had set off protests and resulted in many critics hailing this strange, powerful new voice in film. Jodorowsky was approached by a young film producer to take on the project of adapting Dune. Not even having read the book, Jodorowsky accepted it, based solely on a brief summary of the story.

The character & costume design sketches done by
Moebius. They're vibrance gives some indication of
just how trippy Jodorowsky's adaptation would have been.
Over the next few years, Jodorowsky used charm, fear, shame, and a lot of artistic honesty and zealotry to assemble a mind-blowing crew of talent. By the late 70s, he had agreements from Mick Jagger, Salvador Dali, and Udo Kier to act in the film. He had artistic contributions from H.R. Giger (yes, this was years before Alien) and Moebius. He got Pink Floyd to agree to do the soundtrack. And there were others. This group had put together a massive storybook of Jodorowsky's entire strange and hallucinatory vision, from the first to the last shot. They even had much of the money they would need to do it all.

The rest of the money they needed - a relatively small amount of five million dollars - never materialized. The project had to be abandoned, never to be taken up again, mostly due to the controversial themes explored in the movie - a movie that Jodorowsky himself said wanted to be "like taking LSD, without actually taking LSD." It really was a shame because, even though the storybook and descriptions would suggest the potential for horrible failure, there was also the potential for a wondrously interesting film.


The concept of "the great Dune adaptation" is still a dragon that some are chasing. A quick search online for the terms brings up various rumors about studios and directors who may, or may not, be working on a new adaptation. Until it happens, these tales will never vanish.

But is it possible? In a post-Lord of the Rings trilogy film universe, my hunch is that it is possible. Main Line Films and Peter Jackson showed that, with some massive financial support and a dedicated, passionate, and talented creative team, a massive fantasy tale can be brought to stunning life on film. Of course, Tolkien's seminal work lent itself to commercial success, featuring family-friendly themes and characters. The most fascinating concepts in Dune would never garner such broad interest to make it a financially viable enterprise for a movie studio.

And so my personal guess is that I will never see a high-quality, highly-faithful adaptation of Frank Herbert's classic book. It's a shame, but perhaps the tale is best left where it began - as a purely literary work.