Monday, June 20, 2016

Before I Die #568: La Roue (1923) [The Wheel]

This is the 568th movie I've seen from the 1,172 films on the "Before You Die" list that I'm gradually working through.

Director: Abel Gance

Early silent film dramas can really try my patience. Ones that are over two hours are even more taxing. So when I saw the running time of La Roue (French for "The Wheel") at a bulky four hours and 21 minutes, I marshaled my strength. Steeled as I was, it still was not enough to overcome the tedium that was this movie.

As with several other films from around this era - especially D.W. Griffith dramas such as Orphans of the Storm or Broken Blossoms - La Roue piles on the melodrama steady and thick. The story revolves around (see what I did there?) Sisif, his son Elie, and his daughter Norma. Sisif is a widowed railway engineer who, after a horrendous train accident, rescues the toddler Norma, whose parents have died in the wreck. Sisif takes Norma home and raises her as his own daughter, right alongside his son Elie, who is almost the same age as Norma. Though the family grows up poor, they are generally happy for some time, with neither Norma nor Elie knowing of Norma's true origins.

Once Norma becomes a young woman, however, things gradually take a dark turn. Sisif, knowing that Norma is not his biological daughter, develops a lust for her. He desperately attempts to subdue his urges and guilt through work and alcohol, but this creates more problems. He eventually attempts suicide, which fails, sending him further down a depressing spiral. Sisif ends up marrying Norma off to his boss - a greedy extortionist who also has a strong desire for the young woman. The problems complicate and grow until a fatal showdown between a couple of those involved.

This shot shows one of many effective uses of double
exposure. It also shows Sisif staring into the camera - a 
visual that became numbingly repetitive. 
For a movie released in 1924, the idea of incestuous (even adopted) lust is a rather dark and controversial topic. And generally, I did find that La Roue dealt with it in a relatively serious and commendable way, casting it all in terms of a Greek tragedy taking place within a low socio-economic class. That said, the story hardly seemed to need over four hours to be told. (I read that the original cut of the movie was over seven hours! I can't even imagine.) This is in keeping with nearly all silent dramas of the day, especially those that were innovative in terms of film grammar and technique. I can only assume that the many extended close-ups and dramatic sequences were meant to allow the audience to drink in the emotion of the story. For viewers in the 1920s, this may have been less taxing. For me, though, much of it now feels highly overwrought. Because films became much more efficient and subtle over the succeeding decades, many of the scenes in The Wheel simply drag. There were multiple times when I would zone out for a few minutes, only to bring my attention back to the movie and find that it was still in the same scene, conveying the same plot point or emotion.

I do understand why the movie is considered important. Director Abel Gance showed a mastery of editing and advanced film techniques that were on par with the all-time great directors of his day. Compared to the movies of Griffith or Von Stroheim, Gance used quick cuts, overlaps, and changing visual rhythms in ways that were still quite new for the time. And he did imbue the film with a grand, epic feeling that was rarely granted to such humanistic stories at the time. When taken with the social commentary of the tale, it is not hard to see why this movie is considered a landmark in cinema.

It is hard, however, to sit through four-and-a-half hours of it. This one is recommended only to the most devout of film historians and silent movie aficionados. 

Friday, June 17, 2016

Idiot Boxing: Better Call Saul & Agents of SHIELD

Better Call Saul, seasons 1 and 2

I didn't really get into Breaking Bad until its final season was under way in 2013. It was made available for streaming, so I worked my way through the series in a few months. Like so many other people, I thought it was brilliant. Also like other people, I was a bit skeptical when, shortly after the series ended, a spinoff was announced that would focus on Saul Goodman, the lawyer in Breaking Bad whose shadiness is only matched by his ability to talk his way out of mortal danger.

Well, Saul's show has been excellent. While it does use a fun little framing device that gives us glimpses of Saul after the events on Breaking Bad, 99% of the show is a flashback to several years before the events depicted in its parent series. We get to see how Saul, whose original name was James "Jimmy" McGill, became the scuzzy lawyer who would eventually be there to help Walter White out of massive jams, both legal and otherwise.

The first season shows Jimmy's rise from a mailroom clerk in the law firm of his older brother - an immensely intelligent and successful attorney - to become a practicing lawyer. Over the course of the series, it becomes clear that Jimmy was not above cutting the occasional legal corner or operating in ethical gray areas, even in his earliest days of practicing law. He gives it an honest try for a short time, picking up low-rent cases at the local courthouse as a public defender. But he soon comes across a few more ethically dubious cases in which he might be able to "supplement" his modest income. This is when the show is at its most entertaining and compelling. Yes, there is plenty of comedy in seeing Jimmy channel his inner P. T. Barnum while fast-talking oft-deserving rubes, but he is never made out to be a clown. The show spends enough time on his background and relationships to humanize him well beyond the 2-dimensional sleaze who was introduced on Breaking Bad.

A few familiar faces from Breaking Bad show up, and Mike
becomes a semi-regular. The already-fascinating character
becomes a major draw as the series moves forward. 
The first season also has the strength of featuring plenty of great characters beyond Saul (before he was Saul). His on-again-off-again girlfriend and fellow lawyer, Kim, is well-rounded and tough. His afflicted brother is both the bane of Jimmy's existence and his cross to bear. The various criminals whom he meets are everything you would expect from the writers of Breaking Bad, and we get the joy of seeing Mike Ehrmentraut's return. Mike was always a compelling character in Breaking Bad, but he necessarily had a limited role. In Saul, he gradually becomes second only to Jimmy himself in terms of screen time. He has some great moments in this first season which more than justified his being brought back.

The second season carried on very well. It ratcheted down the humor a bit in favor of a bit more tension and drama. Jimmy gives an earnest try and being a "straight" lawyer, when Kim works out an incredibly sweet deal for him at a highly respected and welcoming law firm. Seeing Jimmy try to operate within and around the standard rules of ethical practises is plenty of fun, but it once again isn't displayed merely for humor. Jimmy's struggles to fit in start to reveal aspects of his character and nature which are often sad and even tragic.

While the second season finale played more like a lead-in to season 3, it was still a great sophomore chapter in a show that has more than justified its existence as a spin-off. I'm not sure how much longer I'll be able to go without re-watching Breaking Bad, with Better Call Saul being such an excellent prequel story.

Agents of SHIELD, season 3

It didn't finish quite as strong as the previous 2 seasons, but this was still an enjoyable 22-episode run.

The previous season ended with a very memorable showdown between the newly-revealed Inhumans and Agent Coulson's SHIELD team. The third season picks up not long after, with Inhumans remaining the focus of fears and hopes of various and powerful factions.

The general arc begins with Coulson and his team trying to ease U.S. government fears about Inhumans, while simultaneously attempting to recapture Grant Ward. As the last vestiges of Hydra are eliminated, a secretive group within the nefarious organization emerges to reveal that Hydra was originally founded as a quasi-religious order which awaited the return of an alien life-form that would eventually take over Earth. Coulson's team expands to enlist several newly-discovered Inhumans, and this enhanced team faces off with the extra-terrestrial conqueror.

The season was another solid one, though it didn't finish as strongly as the first two seasons. In fact, I feel as if the first half of the season was the stronger half. The maneuvering between Coulson and the U.S. government featured some compelling, political plot twists. Even more entertaining, though, was the pursuit of Ward and the attempts to rescue Gemma Simmons, who had been sucked into the obelisk discovered in season 2. Simmons and Fitz make great strides as characters in this season, which is one of the most rewarding parts of the show. Plenty of other TV series would have been content to let these two remain as "the awkward nerds" for at least four or five seasons before possibly allowing them to mature. In this season, however, we get some very real and some very organic development from both of them.

Other characters were a slightly mixed bag, but mostly compelling. More time is given to Mack, whom I generally like but whom I sense the writers haven't completely figured out how to round out. Coulson and Mae are in full-stride, and Daisy has become a true force, literally and figuratively. The departures of Bobbi Morse and Lance Hunter were supposed to evoke sadness, but they were my two least favorite characters, so I had zero problems with it. Grant Ward was brought back in a fun way, and things were set up for a season finale that rivaled the first two seasons. And yet...

The confrontation between Ward/Hive and Daisy takes a
few unexpected turns that keep the show lively.
The season ended leaving me ever-so-slightly disappointed. Not that I found it bad, but perhaps the bar was raised so high after seasons one and two that I was hoping for too much. The seasons' story arcs did reach fairly satisfying conclusions, and we once again see that the writers are not afraid to kill off a character or two whom you thought would be around much longer term. I commend them for that. I think that perhaps this season suffered a bit from character overload. With several new-ish SHIELD team members, a slew of Inhumans, and also government agencies involved, there was a slight lack of emotional investment in anyone beyond Daisy (again). I think that the show has also now made it clear that, while they will kill off likable characters, there are the five "untouchables" of Coulson, Mae, Simmons, Fitz, and Daisy. It's not unlike how I felt when reading George R.R. Martin's Ice and Fire books years and years ago and realizing that anyone could die, as long as their names were not Daenerys, Tyrion, or Jon Snow. They are all still good stories, but it does lower the stakes when you all but know that certain characters are essentially impervious to death.

I also felt that, while the plot takes some nice turns, the show has relied to much on the "traitor in our midst" story-line too often. Each of the three seasons has included this element, and it grew a tad stale this third time around.

My nitpicks aside, this was another good season. I'm very glad that it has been renewed for a fourth. I do hope that they can pare down the cast a bit and perhaps focus on quality stories revolving around fewer characters, be they human or Inhuman. I'll always take quality over quantity. 

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Before I Die #567: The Public Enemy (1931)

This is the 567th film I've watched from the "Before You Die" list which I'm gradually working through. I actually overlooked doing a separate post for the 566th film, High Sierra, but the link leads to the combination review I did, along with a couple of other gangster movies. On to The Public Enemy...

Director: William A. Wellman

A decent enough movie that stands out dramatically from contemporary movies of the same ilk, but one whose power has faded over the 85 years since its release.

At the beginning and end of The Public Enemy, there are disclaimers stating that the movie would not glamorize the criminal lifestyle (an indirect criticism of exploitation films of the day). For the most part, the filmmakers stuck to this promise. The movie follows fictional criminal Tom Powers, a young street tough who, from a young age, is constantly looking for angles and hustles to make money. And possible arrest is no deterrent. When Powers reaches adulthood, Prohibition is in full swing, and he fully embraces the chance to grasp the wealth and power available to those willing to engage in the illegal alcohol trade.

That little synopsis should paint the picture of a very familiar story: the rise of an arch criminal. It's been told in film countless times over the last century or so, in myriad ways. From The Roaring Twenties on up through more recent movies like Brian DePalma's Scarface and Ridley Scott's American Gangster, the tale is a staple of U.S. popular culture. The Public Enemy was one of the very first movies to effectively portray the mob lifestyle as despicable and tragic. Other films of the time were more exploitative and shallow, using the strong gangster character for cartoonish entertainment. James Cagney's Tom Powers, though, is hardly admirable. Sure, he has some amusing one-liners and more than a little courage, but his overwhelmingly dominant characteristics are self-interested greed and violence. It would take an immature or disturbed mind to watch this entire movie and come away wanting to emulate any of Powers's behaviors. In this way, the movie mostly makes good on its promise to not romanticize criminality.

This is not to say that the movie is not entertaining at times. James Cagney was always a pleasure to watch, even when he was playing detestable characters. The tension in his line reads and his physical movements really shone through in this early role, one of his very first starring parts. His presence in this movie is as magnetic as his other iconic roles in The Roaring Twenties and White Heat.

In this still shot, even the postures indicate the difference
in style and attitude. Donald Cook (left) gives a pain-
fully stiff performance, unlike the brilliant Cagney's
more naturalistic acting.
Outside of Cagney, though, the rest of the cast doesn't really stand out. Even the legendary Gene Harlow falls rather flat with her lines at times, and Donald Cook as Tom's brother, Mike, is downright groan-worthy in a few scenes. These two were just a few of the many pieces of evidence that The Public Enemy has, through no fault of its own, aged poorly in some aspects. I hardly count this against the filmmakers, as one will not find a movie from 1931 which has more than one or two actors whose performances hold up over 80 years later. Still, it doesn't make the clunkier, more outdated elements of the movie any easier to watch.

If I compare it to a near-contemporary, I actually preferred The Roaring Twenties, which had stronger all-around production value. That said, The Public Enemy is well worth watching for fans of older gangster movies. At a brisk 82 minutes, it's not much of a commitment, and it's a solid early example of the "rise and fall of a gangster" story which so many of us love.

That's 567 movies down. Only 605 more to see before I can die.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Gangster Flick 3-Pack: The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973); The Long Good Friday (1980); American Gangster (2007)

The taglines on the original movie poster say it all.
The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973)

Director: Peter Yates

A curious movie which oozes despair and fatalism like only 1970s movies can.

Acting legend Robert Mitchum, no stranger to great noir films, plays Eddie Coyle, a mafia middle-man of the lowest-rent variety. Coyle dabbles steadily enough in the purchase and exchange of guns, but he barely manages to eke out a meager existence by which he lives in an uninspiring home with his wife and three children. Eddie is not even particularly great at what he does. As penance for flubbing a job earlier in life, he had his fingers broken in a drawer, earning the nickname "Eddie Fingers". As this movie begins, he has already been collared for illegally transporting stolen goods, and is only free on bail until he can be tried and locked away. That is, unless he turns evidence on some of his more powerful bosses.

The movie isn't always as tight as it could be. A fair amount of time is spent showing how an arms dealer whom Eddie knows goes about the dangerous work of selling guns to criminals of both the professional and amateur variety. While much of this isn't necessary to the central tale of Coyle, it is actually done well enough to remain intriguing. Many of these scenes actually exhibit much that other filmmakers could learn about how to execute tense and suspenseful scenes which still feel fairly organic.

In spite of these mildly tangential moments, the movie coheres at the end, without leaving any dangling elements. Thanks to the generally sordid nature of his business and a horribly unfortunate mix-up, Coyle is targeted for assassination. I couldn't help but think that this movie is essentially the third act of Goodfellas, when Henry Hill sees all of his past glories and successes fall away as he becomes severed from the life of crime which had nurtured him for so long. The difference with Eddie Coyle, however, is that we have no sense that Coyle ever had a "heyday" when he lived the high life and rubbed elbows with mafia big shots. For this reason, Eddie Coyle feels more sadly authentic, and of course far less entertaining, than a Scorsese or Coppola gangster movie.

The Friends of Eddie Coyle is probably too dreary for me to watch again. Still, I have to admit that it is extremely well done and still shows why it is, to this day, considered among the best gangster movies.

Harold Shand - a man who wants profitable peace but has
a frightening violent streak dragged out over the course
of this tense film.
The Long Good Friday (1980)

Director: John Mackenzie

This was the second time I've seen this one. I found it excellent the first time, and it only improved.

The only difficulty I can point out has nothing to do with the film itself. It is merely that there is an abundance of cockney crime slang, which can be tough to decipher, even for one who is familiar with it through movies and novels, like me.

Foreign phrases aside, this movie is an all-time great. Even more than 1971's Get Carter, The Long Good Friday paints a portrait of a British gangster that is as compelling as it is creative. Bob Hoskins plays Harold Shand, a London-based gangster who has overseen nearly a decade of peace and prosperity in the organized crime world. With the 1980s freshly underway, Harold has big plans for massive, mostly-legitimate expansion, and he is about to host a representative of the Sicilian-American mafia in order to forge a partnership. Just as the visit is about to begin, though, some very bad things start happening. A few of Harold's top lieutenants are killed. One of his pubs is bombed. Another bomb is found in one of his casinos. Somebody clearly has it in for him.

The movie follows Harold as he tries to figure out first what is going on, and then who is responsible, so that he knows where to aim his murderous rage. The details of the plot can be rather difficult to follow at times, due in part to the heavy accents and regional slang, but the gist is quite clear: someone is out to get Harold, and Harold is not a man who takes kindly to being gotten. It's the stuff of some of the very best gangster tales, be they in literature or film. There is an almost noir-like impenetrability to the plot, so that it is much easier to feel Harold's disorientation. It's easy to see why he makes several missteps, and its also easy to see why he reacts so violently when certain details are revealed. With each new piece of information he discovers or weeds out through beatings and torture, either the mystery deepens or the scope grows to frightening proportions. This movie is very clearly where plenty of modern British crime movies like those of Guy Ritchie took many of their cues. While the more recent movies exaggerate the entertaining aspects of hard-boiled criminals and their exploits, though, The Long Good Friday keeps the tone far darker and more menacing.

Harold Shand (middle), showing some creativity with his
methods of information extraction.
The performances by the stars of the movie are phenomenal. The secondary characters are played by many faces familiar to those who have seen some of the more popular British crime movies, and a few were even used by Guy Ritchie later in Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch. We also get a rather young Helen Mirren as Harold's sophisticated, modern gun moll, and Mirren predictably nails the role. Most amazing of all of the strong performances, though, is that of Bob Hoskins. His turn as besieged crime lord Harold Shand is one that is arguably unmatched in British crime movies. His shifts in personality, from gregariously charismatic optimist to snarling, vengeful, and brutal thug are completely natural and captivating. His is one of those performances that draws the eye to his character in virtually every scene, and even warrants multiple viewings.

This was the second time that I've watched this movie, and I'm quite likely to watch it again. Anyone who has ever enjoyed British gangster movies owes it to themselves to watch this touchstone film in the genre.

American Gangster (2007)

Director: Ridley Scott

A solid offering of a Scarface-style, making-of-a-gangster movie of a different breed, if not exactly a modern classic.

Based on real events, American Gangster follows the rise of Frank Lucas, the very real drug kingpin who rose to power in Harlem in the 1960s and 1970s. Prior to his climb to crime-lord, Lucas (Denzel Washington) had been an associate of the powerful and influential boss Bumpy Johnson. When Johnson dies, Lucas sees the opportunity to place himself in the gap left by Johnson's death, a gap left mostly in the heroin market. Knowing the landscape of the local illegal drug trade, Lucas knows that he can't compete with the already-entrenched forces of smaller local drug lords and the corrupt police force. He therefore goes directly to a major source of heroin - Vietnam. Using a few old neighborhood friends, the enterprising Lucas cuts a deal with a Vietnamese opium grower and purveyor to sell to him directly. Lucas also organizes a method for getting the opium into the U.S. on board military planes making regular trips between Vietnam and the U.S.

While Lucas's power begins to grow, New Jersey police officer Richie Roberts (Russel Crowe) is fighting the good fight. In ways very reminiscent of Serpico - another story based on true events - Roberts is one of the very few clean cops on the force, which alienates him from nearly all of his fellow officers. It is, however, his incorruptibility that brings him to the eye of state officials who make him head of a force tasked with bringing down the ever-growing illegal drug trade in the greater New York City area. This sets Roberts on the path to tracking down Frank Lucas and attempting to put together a case that will bring down the cautious and savvy criminal and his organization.

The movie bears plenty of familiar elements, the most obvious being the two well-known crime movies already mentioned. But while there may not be much that is exactly novel about the basic elements of the story, director Ridley Scott spins the tale out in entertaining and engaging ways. Richie Roberts's detective work is not unlike what we see in the first season of The Wire, with a small crew of dedicated cops using all of their wits to grasp the scope and details of a massive illegal operation and bring down those in control. The cast does plenty to elevate many of the confrontations and exchanges above their occasional mediocrity, and watching the inevitable collision between Lucas and Roberts slowly develop is engaging. The resolution of the movie is a bit atypical of such movies, and it provides a really solid scene between Washington and Crowe.

As with most movies based on real events, I did a bit of informal research to see just how close to reality the events in the film came. The short answer is: not very close. By most accounts, the real Lucas was not nearly as suave or endearing as the on-screen version, and Roberts is actually portrayed in a slightly less appealing light than the real man. This is another case in which I feel that I would almost prefer to watch a well-done documentary on this topic, even when the dramatized version is of high quality. 

Saturday, June 4, 2016

Retro Trio: Sorcerer (1977); The World's End (2013); Ghost World (2001)

Sorcerer (1977)

Director: William Friedkin

An adequate but ultimately inferior and arguably unnecessary remake of a classic 1950s film.

Sorcerer is a spiritually faithful remake of the 1953 movie The Wages of Fear by Henri-Georges Clouzet. Though each film takes place roughly in the time that it was released, the 23-year difference between them matters little. The basic story follows a handful of shady drifters from different countries, all stuck in a small town in South America. All of them have long since run from something else, but all are desperate to finally return to their respective home countries. So desperate, in fact, that they agree to take an extremely high-risk, high-reward job in order to get the funds needed to leave. The job requires them to drive two trucks filled with highly volatile nitroglycerin across 200 miles of pock-marked dirt roads, so that the explosives can be used to collapse a runaway oil burn. These basics, along with the element of suspense which they set up, are the same in both movies.

Where Sorcerer differs from the original film is mostly in the time it spends on back story. Clouzet's film begins in the small village and spends the first 30-odd minutes there. Friedkin, however, opted to show how the four primary drivers ended up in their predicament. Perhaps unsurprisingly for the director of The Exorcist and The French Connection, the men's tales paint a grim picture. All four are varying degrees of despicable, with serious blood on their hands and misery in their wakes. While this does add a grimness to the movie that Clouzet's lacked, I actually found it a very effective device, as there is a fascination born of seeing if a quartet of vicious, haunted men can actually work together towards a common goal under deadly circumstances.

In nearly all other respects, though, I have to say that Clouzet's original is superior to Friedkin's. It's been about ten years since the one and only time that I saw The Wages of Fear, but I loved it and it always stuck with me.While it doesn't depict the drivers' nefarious backstories, it does strongly imply that these are desperate and somewhat unsavory men. Once they start to make the treacherous journey in their trucks, the movie is far better than Sorcerer. The tension and suspense is more consistently engaging. Whereas Sorcerer has several overly long scenes relying more on set pieces and drawn-out, repetitive action, The Wages of Fear sparks your engagement with one quietly deadly situation after another. Friedkin's movie does have some really good moments of suspense, but they don't stack up to the source material in either quantity or quality.

Sorcerer is a decent enough movie that suffers most from being a remake of an earlier masterpiece. Friedkin, as great a director as he was, probably should have left this one alone.

The World's End (2013)

Director: Edgar Wright

The second time I watched this one from start to finish, and it's even better than I had remembered. And what I remembered was a great movie.

Director Edgar Wright and writer/actor Simon Pegg wrote The World's End as the third and final installment of their "Cornetto Trilogy", a series of films connected mostly by their hilarious appropriation of well-known popular movie genres. This last film drew much of its inspiration from the science-fiction realm, most notably the classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Wright and Pegg had done this before, using George Romero's zombie flicks to inspire Shawn of the Dead and any number of Hollywood action cop movies to create Hot Fuzz. As great as those first two film are, The World's End outdoes them and showcases its writers' brilliance for creating entertaining, clever, and even thoughtful movies.

For the entire first act of the movie, a first-time viewer might wonder just where the science fiction is. The set up centers on Gary King (Simon Pegg), an alcoholic who peaked during his senior year of high school and, as he nears forty, decides to round up his old pals for a reunion pub crawl in their hometown. Once Gary convinces his reluctant former comrades to join (and enable) him and go back home, they soon find that their old pubs have all been homogenized by franchizing. This is the first glimpse of the sci-fi iceberg looming beneath the movie's first 30 minutes. As the fellows progress in their crawl, they discover that most of the town's denizens have been replaced by some sort of automated replicants, complete with their actual memories.

In the spirit of the classic movie Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The World's End uses its fantastic fictional elements to comment upon the homogenization of society. Whereas that earlier film was a thinly-veiled response to the utopian promises of communism, Wright and Pegg's film is a response to corporate sterilization of culture. There are several engaging exchanges that tap into deeper questions about individuality and youth-worship, among other rich topics. Carrying much of the load is a brilliant performance by Simon Pegg, who shows his surprising and impressive acting range in this movie. His Gary King character evokes several different emotions, and his arc is a surprisingly fascinating one.

I've become a real fan of Edgar Wright, and this movie is the one that solidified it for me.

Ghost World (2001)

Director: Terry Zwigoff

I hadn't seen this one since shortly after it was released 15 years ago. It still holds up very well as a funny, thoughtful drama about people who dwell outside of the mainstream. With hindsight, it is also clear that Ghost World was a rather early version of a style more widely popularized later in movies like Garden State and Juno. When compared to those more recent movies, I actually enjoy Ghost World a bit more.

Based on the graphic novel of the same name, the film focuses mostly on Enid (Thora Birch), a rather snarky, hip, 18-year old misfit who looks for inventive ways to stave off boredome during the summer following their senior year in high school. She and her equally-disaffected best friend Rebecca (Scarlett Johannson) tease and torment their friend Josh and hang around their more mainstream classmates just enough to mock and scoff at them. If this sounds a little jerky, it's because it is. Enid and Rebecca do make fun of some things which are worthy of mockery, but they're not exactly noble souls themselves.

Things are taken a little too far when, on a lark, Enid responds to a personal add and pretends to be a woman called for in the add. Enid and Rebecca stake out and watch as the man who placed the add (Steve Buscemi) arrives at the designated area to be unwittingly stood up. After watching the man wait hopefully and then leave dejected, Enid and Rebecca follow him to a garage sale. Enid buys an old record from the man, whose name is Seymour, and she makes a connection with him. Much of the rest of the story involves Enid trying to find a romantic interest for the introverted Seymour, deal with her changing relationship with the Rebecca, and pass a summer art class which she needs to officially receive her high school diploma. On the surface, it could be the plot to many coming-of-age films.

And yet, the novelty lies in the details. Typical of a Terry Zwigoff film, there is plenty of quirky and unexpected humor and drama. The characters are quite different from those in more popular teen movies. Enid, even more than Rebecca, typifies the condition that some young people experience when they have a far clearer idea of what they don't want than what they do. While this is familiar, neither Enid nor Rebecca are portrayed as loveable darlings whom the audience is clearly meant to support. They do selfish and even mean things, even if they aren't essentially mean people. This lends some drama to moments such as when Enid befriends Seymour, or when she breaks down as her friendship with Rebecca deteriorates. Thanks to the steady development of dimensions beyond our initial impressions of the characters, these moments have some heft.

Not every little joke hits, and not every action in the story feels totally organic. But there are enough laughs and enough authenticity to make for a good movie. I may not need to watch it again soon, if ever, but it's nice to see that a noted "cult" movie still holds up.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

New Release! The Nice Guys

Director: Shane Black

One of the best times I've had at the movies in recent years. It might not be perfect or blindingly original in all facets, but The Nice Guys is a hilarious entry into the oft-botched genre of R-rated buddy flicks.

The movie follows Holland March (Ryan Gosling), a private investigator who is put on the case of finding a missing young woman, Amelia, in the drug-fueled Sodom and Gomorrah that was 1977 Hollywood, California. The case itself bears several odd elements, made all the more challenging by the fact that March is not only an alcoholic but also oddly inept at his job. Fortunately for him, he is joined by the sober and much more capable muscle-for-hire Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe). The two find themselves trying to navigate the winding, bizarre trail that Amelia leaves through the Hollywood porn industry, justice department, and even the U.S. automotive industry.

Writers Shane Black and Anthony Bagarozzi fully embraced the neo-noir style and did it tremendous justice, while at the same time turning plenty of its familiar cliches on their ears. There are more than a few sequences which begin in very familiar fashion to crime movie lovers, but which take sly little comic turns. In a move gleefully similar to The Big Lebowski, making the "hero" detective a booze-addled goof creates plenty of opportunity for humor, and the movie capitalizes.  And the characters only enhance the gags. While March does have reasons for being so down on his luck, it doesn't lessen the hilarity of his missteps and posturing. He's the perfect pairing to the grizzled, no-nonsense Healy, and their dynamic is a blast to watch. Peppered throughout all of this are several great little sight gags which are among some of the best I've seen in some time.

Gosling and Crowe make the blend of tough and hilarious
look deceptively smooth and easy. They enhance Black's
already-great script to another level.
It is difficult to imagine better casting for March and Healy than Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe. They play their characters to a tee, and left me with the same feeling that any successful buddy movie should leave - the desire to see more of them. There are a few minor characters that may not have completely fit the bill, but these were the few exceptions among the mostly-strong supporting cast.

As I write this review, the movie has been out for about two weeks and hasn't done exceptionally well at the box office. I do hope that it picks up, as I feel that this type of quality, R-rated comedy is a bit of a dying breed in movies.