Blurbs: Special Edition

I've been gone a long time, I know.  But here I am, and I'm back.  Sorry for the all-too-long hiatus.  In any case, I figured I'd start back with something light, quick, and hopefully interesting, a new entry in my "Blurbs" series, where I give brief thoughts, reviews, etc, on a lot of things I've seen recently, but don't have time to devote to full-lenght pieces (though I may come back to some of them in the future).  Without further ado, here's a new, extra-long installment of Blurbs:

13 ASSASSINS (Takashi Miike, 2010)
I caught this one in Toronto, and I've been thinking a lot about it since then.  It's definitely as bombastic and over-the-top as any other Miike film, but in a more traditional mode of filmmaking.  Stylistically, it plays exactly like a classic samurai picture, mirroring in many aspects the films SEVEN SAMURAI and SANJURO, as well as any other post-60s film that features an individual or group of samurai nobly defending peasants against the evil advances of a violent and immoral enemy.  Still, there are touches of trademark Miike the provocateur in the film, including a sequence which sees the samurai defending the town by having a herd of bulls charge at the invaders with dynamite strapped on their backs.  And, yes, he still finds some way to include a naked torso-woman in the proceedings.  Things aren't nearly as strange as all that, though, and Miike has made what is probably his most mature film to date, a real, first-rate classic that finally marks his arrival above the cult following he has held for the past decade.  13 ASSASSINS is memorable, fun, thrilling and inspiring filmmaking of the very first order.

THE ILLUSIONIST (Sylvain Chomet, 2010)
Another Toronto selection, this is the follow-up to Chomet's feature debut THE TRIPLETS OF BELLEVILLE.  Based on an unproduced script by legendary filmmaker Jaques Tati, THE ILLUSIONIST follows a magician growing slowly irrelevant by a world less-inclined to believe in magic, and becoming more and more enamored with rock-n-roll, which slowly takes over as the main draw to many of the venues he has been playing for years.  Like TRIPLETS, THE ILLUSIONIST is a film of quiet charms, with minimal dialogue (and much of that is muffled and incomprehensible) that focuses all of its attention on the visual imagery and the dazzling art of the film.  There's a moment near the end of the film when the protagonist stumbles into a dark movie theater while chasing his clothing on a runaway rack, and for a brief moment, he shares the screen with Tati's projected image within the theater (a real film clip, not animated).  This single sublime demonstrates what is really the most important thing about Chomet's film: it's ability to touch its audience is admirable in an age when most directors, animators included, would rather shock thrill or titillate.  Truly this is one-of-a-kind filmmaking.

DUE DATE (Todd Phillips, 2010)
This film had a huge build-up because of Phillips' previous success with THE HANGOVER (which, at the time of my writing this, is the most-viewed on-demand movie ever).  Audiences were particularly excited in seeing that film's break-out star, Zack Galifianakis re-team with the director, though it seems the film they got wasn't as amazing as they were hoping (see also: reactions to Judd Apatow's FUNNY PEOPLE).  So goes the saying about expectations, etc., etc.  I, on the other hand, was pleasantly surprised that Phillips had made a different type of road movie from THE HANGOVER, particularly since he was already lining up to shoot a sequel to that one anyway.  Robert Downey, Jr., plays the straight-man to Galifianakis' annoying idiot.  Neither character is particularly likable, though when pressed I'd have to say Galifianakis gets my vote for the one I'd be more likely to kill  myself.  In what is essentially a remake of John Hughes' PLANES, TRAINS AND AUTOMOBILES, we watch as the ever-bitter Downey begins to take a liking to the schlub who keeps getting him in these awful situations to begin with, and it does feature some winning performances.  Downey is incredibly mean-spirited here, much more so than Steve Martin's character in PLANES, and that's saying a lot.  If there's one thing that keeps this film from being completely successful, it's that the character dynamics are so in-tune with previous ideas of how these personalities should clash (thanks to other, better films), that we just can't identify with either character, let alone both.

"G" MEN (William Keighley, 1935)
I'm an unabashed fan of pretty much everything that James Cagney ever did.  He's one of my favorite Classical Hollywood actors, and he's never as much fun as when he's playing a bad guy with a heart of gold.  I'd never seen "G" MEN, Warner's post-Code gangster picture, though I'd been meaning to for years.  Finally, I caught it on DVD about a month ago.  It's really quite fantastic.  In an effort to make a gangster picture, with one of their top stars, Warner Brothers decided they would cast Cagney in a trademark role, but with a twist so as to not upset the censors: Cagney would be a reformed gangster who helps bring down his former associates when he joins the newly-formed FBI.  A lot of the Warner contract actors are here, including Robert Armstrong and Margaret Lindsay, who played tough-as-nails and strictly by-the book Jeff McCord and his sister Kay, respectively.  Keighley's direction is superb (he also directed one of the best adaptations of Robin Hood with star Errol Flynn, and collaborated with Cagney again on the prison drama EACH DAWN I DIE), as is the crisp cinematography of the legendary Sol Polito (THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD, ARSENIC AND OLD LACE, ANGELS WITH DIRTY FACES, 42ND STREET).  I loved this one.  Definitely check it out if you can.

THE WICKER MAN (Neil LaBute, 2006)
I honestly think this is one of the most misunderstood films of the past ten years.  While not terribly good, it's nowhere near awful, and is compelling not only for Nicolas Cage's leap off the deep end performance, but also because it's one of the weirdest films I've ever seen, from beginning to end.  Loosely taking its cues from the original British film and the novel it was based on, LaBute crafts what is essentially a broad genre farce, though played completely straight.  I think this is also the problem a lot of people ran into with LAKEVIEW TERRACE: we're not entirely sure what his game is.  It's such a departure from traditional filmmaking in its tone and execution that it seems like he's often just fucking with us.  Indeed, I think with THE WICKER MAN, he was just fucking with us.  Cage plays a detective from California summoned to a tiny island off the coast of Washington to search for a missing little girl, and uncovers a lot of weirdness when confronted by the modern-day, femme-centric bee-farming pagans that leads to a lot of questions about LaBute's long-accused misogyny (though I think this is mostly him joking about his perceived disgust with females).  In any case, by the end of the film, in which Cage dons a bear suit and goes around punching women in the face and kicking Leelee Sobieski into a wall, the only reading that makes sense any more is that this is a personal satire, as well as an affront to his critics.  He finally gave us "the essential Neil LaBute anti-feminist screed", and we hung him out to dry for it.  Kind of brilliant, actually, and it essentially freed him up to make whatever he wanted from there on out, even if the films weren't that great in the end.

MACGRUBER (Jorma Taccone, 2010)
A pretty smooth film for such an absurdist and sporadic comedy.  Based on the SNL sketch that mocks MACGUYVER about two decades too late, Will Forte leads the charge as the title character, a moronic special-forces type that is utterly clueless about his actual job, but nonetheless succeeds in the end.  The jokes range from the inspired to the merely silly, but there is hardly a minute that passes that doesn't contain at least one gag that had me chuckling.  It's odd that this one got such bad word of mouth (I know I didn't go see it theatrically because of it), because it's actually the funniest film SNL's been involved with since WAYNE'S WORLD 2 all the way back in 1992.  Oh well, now I know, and I'm glad I've seen it.  Immature, yes.  Funny, also yes.  Great cinematic art, well, no.

BABY FACE (Alfred E. Greene, 1933)
The inimitable Barbara Stanwyck stars in this pre-Code picture about an attractive woman who uses her feminine wiles to work her way all the way to the top.  After, quite literally, starting in the basement of a building as a bartender, she begins working at a bank, and goes floor-by-floor to the top, using her looks and sexuality all of the way, though she ultimately realizes this power and financial security will never bring her happiness.  This portrait of unabashed willpower wrapped up in sex and evocation still holds on to its power today, mostly due to Stanwyck's powerful performance as a woman who gains everything only to realize she is still vulnerable.  Thrilling, miraculous stuff.

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