Saturday, November 24, 2007

I'M NOT THERE

I didn’t think they still let people make films like this.

First, just to get this out of the way…and people who know me know this…I don’t like Bob Dylan’s music all that much. I know, he’s a modern poet and prophet and one of the great geniuses of our time. I know. Spare me. You and I are just going to have to part ways on this one. I like some of his music, but besides the train ride to go see this movie, I can’t think of the last time I sat down and said, “hey, I’m really in the mood for some of that Bob Dylan.”

So depending on your perspective, that either makes me the ideal audience for the film, or the worst one possible. Either way, I loved the hell out of this film.

I'm Not There doesn’t make a lot of sense in any traditional…sense. It’s basically six people playing some version or aspect of Bob Dylan. There’s a through line in the loosest of senses, in that the transitions from one to the next to another and back again to the first and to another don’t really follow any sort of narrative, but tonally they feel so right. Just like, you know, music.

Because the best music out there – what happens in the song almost never matters. The lyrics come to you and stay with you later. What first catches you is a certain chord progression, a melody, a harmony, a great hook – something the song made you feel that isn’t at all linked to what the song is about. And THAT’S the best thing I can say about I'm Not There. And don’t get me wrong – it’s still a great script with very, very strong dialogue (the main character is Bob Dylan for God’s sake…if you’ve ever read a Dylan interview about ANYTHING, you know that’s the best central character you could ask for), but the film isn’t specifically about anything, really. Bob Dylan is just a launching point, and even if you stripped away his cultural importance, you’d still have a great film, because writer/director Todd Haynes created something really original that just feels right.

And yeah, in one of the sections, Bob is an 11-year-old black child. And in another, Cate Blanchett plays Bob (although he’s called Jude Quinn; all of the versions of Bob have different names). I’m going to tell you straight up, those are my two favorite sections, Quinn especially. Not because they’re overly experimental or any of that; in fact, on the page, there’s no specific call for Bob to be played by a woman. But Haynes was smart to open up the casting, because Blanchett just plays the hell out of it. She has probably the most interesting aspect of Bob to play, as he was making a transition from acoustic folk to folk-rock and was just an all-around ass. Haynes goes to town creatively in this section, drawing a lot from European art films of the 60s (which I’ve been getting into in the last six months, and was all giddy when I noticed the parallel), even briefly referencing The Beatles’ film A Hard Day's Night (his portrayal of John, Paul, George, and Ringo is genius).

Other aspects are played by Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Richard Gere, and Ben Whishaw. I guess a lot of people are having trouble with Richard Gere’s part, in which he plays a version of Bob that’s basically Billy the Kid. It’s the Old West setting, the whole nine yards. I don’t know, maybe at the point they give the character his first real scene, I was ready to let the film take me anywhere and I could just roll with it, but it made sense to me. Bob identified with the Old West, and made himself to be something of an outlaw. So, this is Bob as an outlaw.

What’s great about this film is on the outset it may seem a little pretentious. You know, six actors playing “aspects” of this cultural icon and yada yada yada. But the film doesn’t hit you over the head with much. It just carries you. I’m going to break a huge rule of reviewing and end this with a quote, because it’s the best possible description of this film and I don’t want to steal it outright.

"Haynes didn't want to make a movie that was about anything. He wanted to make a movie that is something."
-Robert Sullivan, New York Times Magazine

Might be a little pretentious, but I was reading up on the film a bit after seeing it, and coming across those two sentences I was just like, "That's it!"

Thursday, November 22, 2007

SOUTHLAND TALES

First, update. Yeah, I never wrote a full No Country for Old Men review. Sorry. The film's too good. I tried to come up with something, but it was just too scattered and full of a lot of "you know, like, WOW" sentences. But you should go see it. It frickin' rules.

Beyond that, Beowulf is awesome. If you're too jaded to accept an animated film, then this'll get nowhere with you, but it is an exceptional film, not just in terms of technology (see it in IMAX 3D...dear God), but it really is a sophisticated script with stellar acting. I'll go toe-to-toe with anyone on that (no full review because it became even more defensive than that sentence). Lions for Lambs is largely successful, but doesn't quite come together as well as it sets itself out to be, but it is an intelligently-written film that tackles current issues, and we need more films like that. Before the Devil Knows You're Dead...I'm really mixed on. Poorly edited, but really great performances. If anyone ever tells you about "a great little political film called Rendition that no one bothered to show up for but it's really important," run away. It's a really bad film, and it makes Southland Tales look awesome.

So onto that...

I know no one has heard of this film (if you have, props), but you know Donnie Darko? Written and directed by Richard Kelly. Anyway, this is the first film he’s made since then.

Well…okay. Here’s the thing. Southland Tales isn’t a bad film as such. Well, okay, it is. So know that up front – on the whole, Southland Tales is a bad film. But it’s a bad film that tries BIG. And there are moments that it had me. For the first fifteen, twenty minutes I was really enjoying what I was seeing. But somewhere along the way it loses track…and when you have a two hour, twenty minute film, you better keep that sucker on track. But Southland Tales is all over the place, not just plot-wise (we’ll get to that in a second), but in basic tone. I don’t have a huge problem with films that play across genres, but Southland Tales is so scattered…it’s absurdist comedy one second, Donnie Darko the next, satire for a little bit, musical for awhile, espionage thriller for a second or two. It’d be amazing there was a cohesive narrative if, you know…there was one.

But the plot doesn’t make a lick of sense. Which, hey, fine by me. In fact, that’s why I like Donnie Darko so much – it’s just such a thrill to watch that you don’t mind the hours and hundreds of rewatchings it would take to piece that bastard together. Southland Tales isn’t a thrill to watch. There are several good moments, but I only remember that because I remember watching it and being like “oh, awesome,” or “hey, there’s something you don’t see everyday.”

And I heard all this months ago. Actually, almost years now. At the Cannes Film Festival in May 2006, and early cut of this film was shown. Nobody liked it. The best a few critics could garner up was to say “well, not all of the special effects are in place – we shouldn’t judge it ‘til it’s truly finished.” Since then, Kelly apparently completed it, shaving a half hour off of it (give or take). If that half hour (or so) explained anything I saw, or at all bridged the film’s MASSIVE tonal shifts…let’s see that back in please. But as it stands, this is a film that was apparently green lit off its first draft and no one ever said “hey, you might wanna…change that.” I guess people figured “well, Donnie Darko didn’t make sense to people at first; guy must know what he’s doing.”

Apparently, Kelly lucked his way into a great film with Donnie Darko, because when the man’s let loose to do whatever he wants…he came up with this. I mean, this film’s a mess on every level, from the script all the way through the cast. And I generally like Dwane Johnson, Sarah Michelle Gellar, and Sean William Scott. And Cheri Oteri. And Justin Timberlake (as an actor). And Amy Poehler, Kevin Smith, Mandy Moore…a thousand other second-stringers who show up through the film. But nobody in this film quite works in their role (except maybe Mandy Moore). Jon Lovitz as a racist, murdering cop is an especially weird touch. Don't get me wrong, these are brave choices, but they're not brave in that good way (like Adam Sandler in Punch-Drunk Love)...they're brave in that bad way (not mean or creative enough to come up with a good example).

And hey, I went into this film ready for all of this. Everything I read said, loud and clear, “this film is a mess – nothing works.” But I love watching people go for broke, and many, many great films have been panned on initial release, only to be reconsidered later as masterpieces. And I could see this being one of those. I just felt it.

But I was wrong. The hype is true. What’s worse is that the best moments of this film (especially towards the end) are pretty much stolen outright from Donnie Darko, so for most of the moments I enjoyed in this film, all I was thinking was “I haven’t seen Donnie Darko in a long time.”

But y’know what, we’re lucky to have films like this, which is why I can’t completely hate it. Richard Kelly absolutely, as the guy at the copy store in Jerry Maguire says, hung his balls out there. This is a film packed to its gills with ideas and characters and concepts. If filmmakers weren’t given room to go for broke, yeah, I might’ve been spared those two and a half hours, but we also would have stuff like The Fountain, Across the Universe, all of Terry Gilliam’s good films, and yeah, Donnie Darko. And this is still ten times more interesting than whatever Epic Movie/Scary Movie/Date Movie derivative is out this year.

Friday, November 09, 2007

NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN (the non-review)

I’ve seen a lot of exceptional films this year. Zodiac came out swinging in March, and if it would’ve ended up the best this year had to offer, it wouldn’t have surprised me in the least. Once and Waitress made a summer that included Live Free or Die Hard, the latest Harry Potter mess, and *shudder* Spider-Man 3 worthwhile. The Bourne Ultimatum reminded everyone that big-budget action thrillers can be…smart. Across the Universe filled me with hope and made me smile all the way home. And The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, well…they don’t much come better than that.

Until they do.

Because as much as I love those movies (and I LOVE them), they’re very much contained. Which is fine and all, but they’re very easy to consider and, besides my desire to spend more time with such quality filmmaking, I didn’t ache for that second viewing.

I don’t even know what to say about No Country for Old Men at this point. I will tell you it’s exceptional. Even for the Coen Brothers, two of my absolute favorite filmmakers, and almost surely the best of their generation. And you know why this is? Because they don’t have “a masterpiece.” From the time they unleashed Blood Simple all the way through The Man Who Wasn't There*, every single film was excellent. There are some I like better than others, but trying to pick one, or even two or three, to represent the totality of their achievement…forget it.

No Country for Old Men may be that film. Walking out this film, Gray and I both agreed we should probably just stay for the next showing. We didn’t, but I assure you this is a film I will see again, and soon. And when I do, I will attempt to give the film a proper write-up.

*I’ll admit Intolerable Cruelty was a misstep, only in that it doesn’t hold a candle to the rest of their work; I still enjoy it. And I haven’t seen The Ladykillers, but I hear it’s on the same level.