Saturday, June 28, 2008

"That rug really tied the room together."

The Big Lebowski | rel. 1998 | dir. Joel Coen

This film was June's Movie of the Month at the LAMB.

Like many, I thought the dark humor in last year's Best Picture winner, No Country For Old Men was superbly executed. The way writing and directing team Joel and Ethan Coen just seemed to know the perfect timing for some chuckles in the midst of all that blood and suspense came as a surprise, since I was unfamiliar with the two filmmakers' previous films.

So I'm rather glad I was able to see the Coens behind a full-fledged comedic romp in The Big Lebowski.

The film tells the story of Jeffrey Lebowski, nicknamed "The Dude" (Jeff Bridges) who lived in Los Angeles in the early nineties. One evening, The Dude comes home to find two men who informs him that his wife owes a large amount of debt to a man named Jackie Treehorn (Ben Gazzara) and he must pay it back because apparently, he's loaded enough to do so. The men tortures The Dude by putting his head in the toilet and even urinating on his precious rug. The funny thing is, The Dude doesn't have a wife and he's just an unemployed slacker. The men, noting The Dude's confusion and his poorly-kept home, realize that they probably have the wrong Jeffrey Lebowski on their hands, so they leave.

After thinking for some time at his favorite hang-out place--a vintage-styled bowling alley--The Dude takes up his friend Walter's (John Goodman) suggestion to find the "other" Jeffrey Lebowski and ask for some payment for the urinated rug. To The Dude's surprise, the other Jeffrey Lebowski (David Huddleton) is a wheelchair-bound Philanthrope who simply refuses to pay for the urinated rug. The other Lebowski is a bit of your stereotypical old millionaire jerk-face: He lives in a huge mansion with gigantic pool, is rude and suspicious to visitors like The Dude, has a yes-man, Brandt, who just worships him (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and a seemingly slutty young trophy wife, Bunny (Tara Reid), and gorgeous rugs that The Dude takes no shame in stealing. Just one rug probably wouldn't hurt anybody...

The plot of the film really starts crackling when Bunny is kidnapped and the millionaire Lebowski asks The Dude to act as a courier to deliver the million in ransom. Mayhem ensues; mayhem concerning a case of underwear, a rug of sentimental value, pornography, nihilists, a shattered new (and old) car, green nail polish, a pedophile, bowling--just to name a few. But those are just ingredients that fuel this original crime story.

The Big Lebowski has an incredible cast, especially Bridges in a very likable performance as The Dude. Although I often thought the guy needed to take more baths, actually do his laundry, and get a job (but loved the shades), I liked him a whole lot and rooted for him all the way. I loved Goodman's performance as The Dude's loyal but freakishly unstable sidekick who is fearless when it comes to waving a gun around in a public bowling alley or shattering someone's brand new car (a scene that got my laughing so hard that I had tears in my eyes--and that's rare). I enjoyed Huddleton and Hoffman, who often stumbles off to the sidelines but are wholly deserving of attention when they are present on-screen.

The rest of the supporting cast deliver lovely performances as well, despite that their characters come off as rather uninteresting. Julianne Moore plays Maude Lebowski, the millionaire's daughter who has an idea of her father's tricks. In her signature red hair, with a Uma Thurman a la Pulp Fiction kind of feel, Moore knows how to hold the screen like a classic film noir femme fetale with a modern kick, despite her poorly-developed character. Steven Buscemi, who plays The Dude and Walter's charmingly innocent bowling buddy, Donny in the film proves that he's always a rewarding addition to a strong cast--again, despite the fact that the character itself brings little to the movie.

The bowling alley scenes are full of rambling pointlessness. Some of the dialogue between the characters feel like the Coens got too caught up in their own quirky universe that they must reveal every single meaningless detail that adds nothing to the plot or the film's entertainment value. But the bowling alley scenes are brightened up by John Turturro in a small but interesting role as a rival bowler named Jesus--and yes, he is very funny. A subplot--if I can call it that--between The Dude and Maude feels rather undeveloped and sloppy compared to the cleverness of the rest of the film. The narration by The Stranger (Sam Elliott) isn't very necessary either.

But the rest of the film is clever enough. The dream sequences adds a bit of flair to the crazy mayhem, although the flying scenes are cheesy as hell. But they are entertaining and wonderfully choreographed, especially the the last one with The Dude bowling with Maude. I found the weirdness of it all very refreshing.

The film sure does end abruptly, though. But life goes on, I suppose.

Despite its minor flaws, I did laugh very much throughout The Big Lebowski and was engaged in the plot enough to care about the fate of the characters. I guess in that way, the Coens fulfilled their purpose.

Rating: 7.5/10

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

A Kiss at the End of the Rainbow

Eugene Levy and Catharine O'Hara performing the nominee for Best Original Song from the film, A Mighty Wind at the Academy Awards in 2004.

Beautiful, right?

I adore great American folk music. Overall, I enjoyed Christopher Guest's mockumentary, but this song (written by Michael McKean and Annette O'Toole) definitely made me like the film even more.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

America's (AFI's) 10 Greatest Films in 10 Classic Genres

I was unable to catch the CBS special that was on Tuesday since I was studying for my French and English finals, but I am happy to announce that the list is available online.

Some great choices here and there. It was completely expected that Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, The Searchers, Raging Bull, Vertigo, The Wizard of Oz, 2001: A Space Odyssey (can you believe I've NEVER seen 2001?), The Godfather, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Lawrence of Arabia top their respected genres.

Well, I was hoping Gone with the Wind would top the epic list, but hey, Lawrence of Arabia is not too shabby either. I do not think Lawrence of Arabia reaches the entertaining stamina and grand melodrama of Gone with the Wind, but it is a very good film, perhaps because of Peter O'Toole's charismatic and convincing performance as T.E. Lawrence.

But I would never have guessed that City Lights would top the romantic comedies list. I don't think I know a single person who would watch City Lights and think, "Wow, what a great romantic comedy!" Although Annie Hall would have been a more conventional and expected choice (it still came in #2), Roman Holiday defines (for me, at least) what the romantic comedy genre is all about. Its ending is every bit as bittersweet as the ending to City Lights, but Roman Holiday is far more romantic and comedic than City Lights. Roman Holiday is one of my all-time favorite movies.

Jerry Maguire is a...sports movie? Like someone once said on IMDb, it's a "chick flick disguised as sports movie." That movie isn't about sports. It discusses the subject of what it takes to be a football player with sacchrine ooze, but it doesn't actively discuss the harsh determination required to be an athlete in the way say, Raging Bull and Rocky do. I actually think it would have been more appropriate to place Jerry Maguire in the romantic comedy list, just because it really is a romantic comedy. They could have replaced Sleepless In Seattle (You've Got Mail is much better, IMO) with Jerry Maguire. But hey, I have a weird soft spot for Jerry Maguire. The film is so unbelievably corny, but Cameron Crowe's fluff works.

I'm not the most avid viewer of the western genre, but it has been growing on me. How do I know? I absolutely adore the top four movies on the list. The Searchers is a wonderful film, and I remember being absolutely surprised on how entertaining and suspenseful the film is, especially at its climax. I also love High Noon, not only for Gary Cooper's incredible performance, but for Grace Kelly not being a mere damsel-in-distress but a strong woman who is able to defend herself in a man's genre. Shane is a great movie, if only for Alan Ladd's fantastical coolness in the film. I can go on forever about Unforgiven. It is my favorite western film. Clint Eastwood delivers one helluva performance, on-screen and off-screen in the director's chair. And I can't say enough about Gene Hackman's villainous turn...all I can really say is, HE'S AMAZING. I'm slowly becoming a huge Hackman fan.

I'm definitely not the biggest fan of The Wild Bunch, but just how cool is that iconic image of the film? William Holden rules.

Oh, To Kill a Mockingbird. I love that movie (and book) to pieces. Glad to see it top the courtroom drama list. And I wish Back to the Future is slightly higher on the sci-fi list because really, it's probably the most fun I've ever had watching a film.

But I wish Scarface would somehow roll of this planet and suddenly evaporate into a black hole. What is so great about that movie anyway other than the unintentionally funny parts? I mean, I realize how iconic it is, but not even Al Pacino's performance and Michelle Pfeffier's beautiful presence could save that mess of a movie. And I do love Pacino a whole lot and I'm glad to see both Godfather films make the list.

Enough of my pointless little rant. What are your opinions on AFI's newly unveiled list?

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Happy Birthday, Roger Ebert!

Parents: If you encounter teenagers who say they liked this movie, do not let them date your children.
- Review of Resident Evil: Apocalypse
Today is Roger Ebert's 66th birthday. Ebert is probably my favorite film critic of all-time. He delivers his opinion as it is, without any fancy ornamentation or so-called cleverness. Ebert discusses a movie like an everyday filmgoer, but he is an extraordinarily talented writer because of his elegant simplicity and conciseness. When Ebert is at his best, his reviews are insightful and funny, emphasized with a deep appreciation and love for movies and movie criticism. Despite his talents in writing, I do not always agree with Ebert, but I still maintain respect for him. I miss seeing him co-host "Ebert & Roeper" because I just don't think Michael Philips does Ebert any justice. (And I miss Gene Siskel too, but makes life much better.) But hey, I've still got, a website with an archive of 40 years of movie reviews. I wish him well.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Images of Zooey Deschanel

Zooey Deschanel has to be one of the most underrated and underused young actresses today. She has starred in various movies that ranges from the most independent to the most mainstream, but strangely, she has failed to garner the attention or accolades that her lesser contemporaries has received. My best guess is that her lack of accolades may be associated with the fact that she does not always choose to be part of a potential critic's darling. But what makes her role choices interesting is that it seems that she chooses roles that she personally seems to be passionate about, no matter how silly or weird the film or the role might be. She is not acting to solely make money or win awards and that is a rare quality in today's box-office obsessed film industry.

Deschanel first caught my eye as Patrick Fugit's rock-and-roll loving sister in Cameron Crowe's Almost Famous. Apart from being incredibly gorgeous, there was something about her that was amazingly magnetic. When her face filled the screen with those great, blue eyes and convinced her little brother that he is going to be cool someday, I believed her every word.

Several years later, she delivered a gloriously bewitching performance opposite Paul Schneider in David Gordon Green's lyrical All the Real Girls. The film had a triumphant script to start with, full of the painful and joyous obstacles of young love, but the heart of the film was the development of Deschanel's character. For Deschanel's character to go from a sweet small-town girl to a mature but confused young woman was fantastic to behold. Deschanel nailed the part by making it her own. I cannot bear to imagine any other actress in the role.

Aside from being a great up-and-coming actress, she has a beautiful voice that was rather unknown until she did some singing in the 2003 Christmas film, Elf. Her indie rock band, She & Him (with M. Ward), released an album earlier this year, optimistically titled Volume One. (It is a truly fantastic album, so I urge everyone to check it out.) Deschanel is also part of If All the Stars Were Pretty Babies with fellow actress Samantha Shelton, a cabaret act that often performs around the Los Angeles area.

Deschanel is a woman of endless talents. But I miss the days where she really transformed herself into her roles. Has anyone noticed that she looks exactly the same in all her roles now? Hairstyle, make-up, etc.? That wasn't always the case in the past...

She rocked the black eyeliner look in Mumford.

As the memorable big sister in Almost Famous.

Looking casual in Big Trouble.

She rocked the black eyeliner look in Manic (again) in the promo images, but her innocent hairstyle here is rather fitting.

She looked a bit like Amy Adams in The New Guy. I remember that I wanted the main character to end up with her instead of that one popular girl...

She was adorable in retail store employee attire in The Good Girl.

She was blonde and wore the cheerful department store elf attire in Elf. Despite their age difference, Deschanel and Will Ferrell had surprisingly believable romantic chemistry. No kidding.

She was simply charming as the girl-next-door in All the Real Girls. Deschanel even sported two different hairstyles in the film. By the way, the movie itself is beautifully photographed.

She looked extremely young in Abandon for some reason.

"She's Got Issues" and "Idiot Boyfriend" music videos, respectively. She acquired a completely different "look" for both roles.

Basically, her early career was filled with various of transformations. She was like a young female Gary Oldman or Johnny Depp but somewhere down the road, it seemed like either her or her directors decided that she must look long-haired and brunette for every single movie she participates in. Not that I'm complaining much since Deschanel looks fabulous and has the talent to back it up, but I miss the chameleon part of her.

But it is great to see that Deschanel's career is flourishing. 2007's critically-acclaimed festival darling, The Go-Getter is finally getting a limited release and M. Night Shyamalan's The Happening will be hitting the theaters this summer (I'm going to cross my fingers and hope it doesn't suck too much). Later this year, Deschanel has several projects lined up, more prominently in the independent film, Gigantic, and a Jim Carrey comedy vehicle, Yes Man.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

"Alive! It's alive! It's alive!"

Young Frankenstein | dir. Mel Brooks | 1974

Ever since I was very young, I had very little interest in Frankenstein. To me, the monster was simply a rectangular-faced man who walked around, grunted, and occasionally strangled people who were in his way. I guess I just thought that since he was made up of bunch of different body parts from other bodies, he was just sort of weird. Because of my lack of fascination in the creature, I never read the Mary Shelley novel or watched any of the Frankenstein movies that Hollywood seems to have been making since the beginning of time. I was so ignorant from the world of Frankenstein that it was just recently that I learned that Frankenstein was the name of the creator of the monster, not the monster itself.

Watching Young Frankenstein, Mel Brooks' original and inspired parody of the old tale that everyone seems to know with a childhood glee, is like watching an inside joke that I cannot quite comprehend. But I am more than willing to learn and understand. There are several references to the origin of things here and there, and Brooks tries to make everything as accessible for as possible. For the most part, I enjoyed it. Brooks' is able to maintain a certain mysterious, frightening suspense in the midst of comedy, which can some time fail in a universe of predictable eccentricities and chaos.

The premise itself is interesting: Why not tell a story about the grandson of Victor Frankenstein, who thinks his grandfather is a complete lunatic, and make him follow his his grandfather's footsteps?

The film centers around the grandson, Frederick Frankenstein, a flamboyant professor at a medical school who denies his grandfather's work so much that he demands his students pronounce his famous surname as "Fronkensteen." When bestowed with his grandfather's will to take over his grandfather's old estate, he reluctantly agrees and travels to Transylvania (isn't that Dracula's home, not Frankenstein's?) on a train, leaving his ridiculous but distant fiancée, Elizabeth (Madeline Kahn) behind.

At the eerie Transylvania train station, Frederick meets his servant, Igor (Marty Feldman), a hunchback dressed in a black robe with freakishly bulging eyes, whose hump occasionally switches from left to right. But like a true eccentric, Igor seems to deny that he is a hunchback when Frederick offers to fix his back for him. When Frederick arrives at Igor's carriage, he finds the beautiful but rather clueless Inga (Teri Garr) rolling sensually in the hay with her shimmering blond hair; she will be Frederick's assistant, although the audience doubts that she will be able to do anything much other than be a possible object for desire. Behold, another eccentric character!

Victor Frankenstein's estate is a castle-like mansion, which silently sits on top of a hill and looks hauntingly frightening whenever lightning strikes on a dark and stormy night. Inside, Frederick meets the stern maid with a despicably threatening mole, Frau Blücher (Cloris Leachman), who once knew Frederick's grandfather and may still be very much in love with him.

As reluctant as Frederick might be, nothing can stand in the way of destiny. In the middle of the night, he hears violin music that leads to his grandfather's laboratory. Frederick's journey to his grandfather's laboratory is genuinely creepy and one of the most suspenseful moments of this wild parody. There is a menacing glee is Brooks' direction as he tries to blend the seriously thrilling moments of the Frankenstein genre with some of his own lighthearted comedy.

When he finds and reads a book in the laboratory that was written by his late grandfather, Frederick becomes inspired to carry out his grandfather's experiments. I would have liked a better explanation for how Frederick is so quickly interested in something he spent most of his life trying to push away, but it is much better to go with the flow sometimes. Corpse, brain, and lab ready, Frederick embarks upon a journey that has haunted him for much too long. This is destiny's calling and there is no other choice but for him to succeed. And he has to succeed because if he does not, there would be no movie.

Due to an unfortunate accident by Igor, the Monster (Peter Boyle) is inserted with an abnormal brain rather than the brain of the scientist-saint Frederick wanted to put in the seven-feet corpse. The Monster turns out to be the stereotypical Monster that the world acknowledges--rectangular-faced, grunting, and occasionally strangles people who are in his way. Transylvania is on the edge as they become suspicious of this new Frankenstein's activities and their thoughts are often represented by an eccentric (again) police officer with a weird arm (Kenneth Mars).

So chaos ensues. Lives are threatened. Some funny lines are delivered. I think you can imagine the rest.

But there are several amusing things in-between, including an adorable tap dancing and singing performance--accompanied by "Putting on the Ritz"--is a joy to watch, mainly because of Wilder's enthusiastic presence. There is also a funny scene in the Monster's temporary escape where he stumbles upon a blind man (Gene Hackman) who lives in a small cottage and just wants a friend.

My impression of Young Frankenstein is not purely enthusiastic, though. The first thirty minutes of the film does not include many successful attempts at humor. The opening credits have the sparkling brilliance of a possible horror classic, but the opening jokes do not have the sparkling brilliance of a possible comedy classic. There were plenty of moments in the beginning where I realized what was supposed to be funny was not very funny to me.

In this film's universe, recycled body parts can come alive again, but unfortunately, recycled jokes cannot. Pronouncing "Frankenstein" as "Fronkensteen" is amusing the first time Wilder said it, but it is definitely not funny afterwards. There are also several references to a certain male organ of copulation, none of which that are very funny. I understand that silliness is expected, but constant, unfunny repetitions are never welcomed.

Thankfully, the film is saved by a tremendously talented cast who can fill the shoes of these tremendously eccentric characters. Wilder is a likable actor and he brings a strange intelligence and charm to his otherwise up-tight character. Although Boyle is simply playing a monster, he shows the kind of vulnerability that makes him a character that we want to root and care for. Feldman and Garr play delightful comedic sidekicks that are full of enthusiasm and comedic grace. Hackman, in a memorable cameo role, is very funny.

Then there is Kahn, who is in an entirely other league than her co-stars. To reveal too much about her character--other than the fact that she plays Frederick's fiancée and unexpectedly arrives in Transylvania--is to unfairly detract the surprise and glories of how she portrays her character. Kahn has the kind of energy and comedic timing that very few comediennes (and comedians, for that matter) are able to show on screen. She is impeccably fearless in her portrayal of a rather goofy character. Kahn is able to enter a role and completely forget that she is playing an eccentric while the others show a glimmer of self-conscious questioning in their lines and the situations they are in.

Young Frankenstein lives in a gorgeous post-sixties black-and-white universe. But it is often predictable and in the end, it fails to show the winningly suspenseful Gothic glory that dominated the film in earlier scenes. The film traps itself in its own chaotic, comedic confinement that the potential to be horrifying and funny simultaneously has been thrown away. Nevertheless, I like the originality of the premise and I cared about the characters and enjoyed all the performances. The script by Wilder and Brooks is keen enough on character development and includes enough one-liners that more or less works. Young Frankenstein is a moderately entertaining romp, if not perfect or even completely memorable. I enjoyed the ride, although I cannot help but say I was a little disappointed. But this movie has too much heart for me to give it a negative review. I guess I will just remember that lovely tap-dancing scene and hold dear Kahn's remarkable comedic feat.

Rating: 6.5/10