Monday, January 5, 2009

Review: Burn After Reading (2008)

Like digging a foxhole or a grave, starting a project is always the hardest part. Film in particular, all of the elements have to be present for the brief moments preceding, during, or shortly after the opening credits if the rest of the film is going to fly. Even the worst films can fool me for a bit if the opening scene is on-target.

Burn After Reading is a spy film that is not a spy film; moreover, it is a comedy that is not a comedy (not in the way that Intolerable Cruelty wasn't a comedy... more in that O Brother, Where Art Thou? was The Odyssey but in more ways was not The Odyssey). As such, Burn After Reading is tough to get into and even tougher to comment on.

A second viewing helps tremendously.

It's not that I didn't enjoy the film the first time around. I liked it. I also thought it was... weird. Weird beyond proper description. Weird even for the Joel and Ethan Coen. The rhythm of their films are on a wavelength that will bend and pulse whether a passenger is onboard or not. Burn's opening scenes are particularly difficult to attune to, not because they don't work, but because they take off and don't wait for my ass to board the train.

Making this even more challenging is the score. My god the score. Scenes are given an incredible amount of emphasis, with intensity matching the stomping drum beats and siren calls in The Dark Knight. It is so goddamn inappropriate that it deserves its own paragraph in this review. The fucking score... holy moly...

Most of the film's elements can be matched to the Coens' previous work -- the dialogue in particular is as quotable as ever -- but can the film as whole? I'm not sure. Burn After Reading isn't like Miller's Crossing and doesn't fold over itself repeatedly, nor does it walk through the minute details that make up the destruction of the characters' lives, like Fargo. It isn't as wild as Raising Arizona and it isn't as subtle as The Big Lebowski.

The film offers the information, quickly, and moves on. This happens, that happens, these people die, the film is over. In that sense, I suppose it is most similar to No Country For Old Men, in that it is so close to its theme that the film is an example of it. Shit just happens, so get over it.

While Burn After Reading falls far short of reaching that level of greatness, it is good. It is genuinely funny and highly unpredictable. And after a second viewing, I can now say for certain that I have regained my trust in the Coen Brothers' filmmaking abilities. I can't wait for the next one.


Sunday, January 4, 2009

Review: Be Kind Rewind (2008)

My first exposure to Michel Gondry was Volume 3 of his Director's Works set, thanks to a friend, Jimmy Holliday, whose habit back then was to put on music videos during mild hangout sessions to fill the gap between conversation lulls/bong refills. While both Spike Jonze and Chris Cunningham serviced this idea quite well, Gondry's music videos made conversation an impossibility. Each video was a new idea, a new way to challenge and bend the medium. Watching was nothing short of magical. (Two favorites are Come Into My World and Let Forever Be).

It only took a short time for Gondry to mirror this magic in full-length features, decimating Spike Jonze's track record with Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. All was well and good with the world, but coming close to repeating that feat is hard for even Gondry to do.

Be Kind Rewind is yet another slideshow of Gondry's eccentricities; among other things, it's a glimpse into his playground, a bridge between the darkside of The Science of Sleep and the lightside of Human Nature, and a welcome area to dream. The techniques he uses are less like tools and more like toys, and wielded so expertly that the execution is practically a physical manifestion of his own imagination (techniques which more than resemble his video for Lucas with the Lid Off.)

Even given this, the film is never overly self-indulgent. His characters, in this oddball fucking universe he has created, feel very real, and even though the opposing force in the film is more of a bully than a villain, their struggle against it is admirable.

Having made some films after high school (bad ones), what Be Kind Rewind manages best is to capture the excitement of getting together with friends and working hard at creating something, and having a blast while doing it. While my friends and I never made an entire city block giddy with appreciative laugher (Be Kind's largest but only major shortcoming), we managed one or two films to be proud of.

That's what I love most about the director. Cliches and conventions can provide the techniques but aren't a requirement. Hollywood may have built the industry, but it does not have a monopoly on creativity or ingenuity. Michel Gondry and his films are living proof of that.


Saturday, January 3, 2009

Review: Australia (2008)

Baz Luhrmann's films usually require a degree of stamina to watch. Even with words set firmly on paper, a camera set firmly on a dolly, clips locked firmly on Final Cut's timeline, his films still manage to explode free in garish, technicolor nightmare. The actors speak at a superhuman pace around edits, post-production slo-mo/fast-mo, slide whistles and prat falls while bright, bright colors spill between the widescreen bars in random piles, and all the while good ol' Baz hides behind the red curtains pulling madly at levers and cackling like a lunatic, where no amount of backpedaling or polite harrumphing could kill his momentum.

This is not necessarily a compliment.

Australia begins like his previous films, around a simple framing device that predicts what is to occur in the next two hours. Not that I'm a particular fan of this method to begin with, but it is clear at the offset that this time around, it really doesn't work. The theme is immediately unfocused, the timeline is too narrow, and Brandon Walters's narration is completely and totally unnecessary, especially considering that the character isn't present for much of the interaction between Hugh Jackman and Nicole Kidman.

This and increasing issues in execution stagnate the films pace. With the narration bookending dramatic moments and act transitions, there is nothing left to wonder about, nothing to capture the imagination save for the occassional well-filmed landscape. Luhrmann writes 1+2=3 on the wall and leaves it at that, and it's exactly as boring as it sounds. There is a mystery that is easy to figure out, a body count lacking emotional oomph, and a villain so one-dimensional that any suspense left within is dead on arrival.

The only portion of the film that remotely resembles an exciting adventure across the outback is the cattle drive, a sequence approximately 40 minutes long with frequent breaks in believability thanks to obvious green screen cutaways and a wholly preposterous deus-ex-machina. Problems abound, the same that plague the rest of the film, but still exciting, and the sequence steers closest to what I wanted from the film: two people from different worlds fighting for one cause and one purpose and managing to win without compromise or exception, and especially avoiding fighting with one another over NOTHING.

Luhrmann's brand of scattershot methamphetamine writing typically has a direction to vessel it safely to the endpoint -- something that is impossible in the old school style of Hollywood. His remake of Moulin Rouge! didn't emulate Huston's original. Why, suddenly, should this film? Why should this one require so little imagination and only enough fortitude to keep from leaving before the film is over?

I will say that, in addition to the acting of both Hugh Jackman and Nicole Kidman, the mimickry of old Hollywood is successful, if only at its base definition. It compliments the past but does not extend or improve upon it. In the end, Australia can't even confidently stand up next to Baz's remaining filmography.