Monday, July 23, 2012

Review of Nashville

The 59th movie on AFI's list is the Robert Altman film Nashville.  It's a typical Altman film with a giant ensemble cast, realistic dialogue and a rambling plot.  It follows a few days in Nashville's country and gospel music industry in the 1970's. 
I wasn't a huge Robert Altman fan before I saw this film, and I'm still not.  You would think that with realistic characters and authentic-sounding dialogue, a film would be interesting.  But Nashville is not.  I would even say that it is unspeakably dull.  Because the camera's attention wanders in and out of characters' conversations and doesn't cut during the boring parts, my attention span did the editing for Robert Altman by drifting in and out of the movie.  Things my wife was doing, the antics of household cats, the weather, and lint between my toes at various times were more interesting to me than the action on-screen. 

The movie's music is meant to be a snapshot of the real Nashville's music in the 1970's.  And boy-howdy, country music was in a bad place back then.  On the scaffolding of cowboy ballads, folk music and songs about unfaithful wives was built a teetering Babylon of maddening pretention where untrained singers screeched above full orchestras, when early synthesizers beeped and booped next to the howl of slide guitar, when nauseating, nasal male voices told you in no uncertain lyrics exactly what to think.  The lumbering adult-contemporary beast opened wide its maw, gobbled Hank Williams Jr. and took a shit on 70's culture.  That rhinestone-encrusted piece-a'-shit was country music from this era. 

Nashville is many things bad.  It's a black comedy that isn't very funny.  It's a snapshot of a musical genre that deserves infamy and scorn.  It's another reason I have to curse Robert Altman's name and progeny, and yet another selection from the supposed 70's golden age of cinema that just bores not just the hell, snot and shit out of me, but the lymph, earwax and spinal fluid. 

In conclusion: Fuck.  Nashville. 
1/2 a repetative refrain of "It Don't Worry Me" out of 100

Monday, June 4, 2012

Review of Duck Soup

Number 60 on AFI's list is Duck Soup, a 1933 Marx Brothers political satire.  The action takes place in the fictional country Freedonia, where wealthy plutocrat Ms. Teasdale orders that Rufus T. Firefly, become leader of the country.  Firefly, played by Groucho, proceeds to act like an asshole.  Meanwhile, the leader of neighboring Sylvania hires a couple other Marx Brothers to spy on Firefly.  They too proceed to act like assholes. 

Frankly, I have difficulty seeing how this movie is a political satire.  To me, it seems more of a series of set pieces engineered to feature the brothers Marx acting like assholes.  This isn't to say the movie is bad, I just think it's a little weak in the satire department.  That's also not to say the assholic antics of the Marx Brothers aren't funny, either.  When they act like assholes, they do so not because they're mean or angry.  Their characters have no motivation other than to cause chaos for its own sake. 

What this film has going for it is a series of quick-firing gags and physical comedy.  Amongst these is the oft-imitated mirror gag in which Harpo seemlessly pretends to be Groucho's reflection in a mirror.  What it lacks is a strong plot and, well, political satire.  All in all, I've seen way funnier comedies and many more political satires that are funny because they're true. 
2 1/2 leg-lifts out of 5

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Review of Sullivan's Travels

...And another giant break between AFI movies.  Anyway, we just watched #61 on AFI's list, a comedy called Sullivan's Travels.  It was released in 1941, directed by Preston Sturges and stars Joel McCrea and Veronica Lake.

The story is about a film director named Sullivan who has grown weary of making schlocky comedies and shallow musicals.  He wants to direct a movie called O Brother, Where Art Thou?, an epic that captures the struggles and plight of the common man.  His collegues chide him for knowing nothing about the struggles of the poor.  Undeterred, he dons hobo clothes and runs away to sample life as a migrant worker.  As he travels, he prompts people to talk about their troubles, but discovers nobody is in a big hurry to bemoan the plight of the common man.  He meets "the Girl", many misadventures occur, many silent-movie comedies are referenced and many lines of dialogue are delivered snappily. 

As an aside, despite bizarre claims by old movie posters for this film which proclaim that "Veronica Lake is on the Take", Veronica Lake at no point appears to be on the take.  I can only assume that this genre-defying movie left studio publicists mystified as to how to market it.  Scratching their heads in confusion, somebody suggested, "We need somethin' that rhymes, see!  Who cares if it don't make sense?"


What makes this movie different is that it has a fourth act in its story structure.  After Sullivan and the Girl spend an appropriate amount of time learning hardship and having zany adventures, they return to the studio in triumph.  Normally, a movie might end here.  However, Sullivan decides to don his hobo clothing and repay the poor he lived with a stack of $5 bills.  He is promptly robbed at a trainyard and tossed unconscious onto a departing freight.  His robber is mangled by a train and his corpse mistaken for him.  Meanwhile, the groggy Sullivan lashes out at a railyard guard and is sentenced to six years hard labour.

It is here that the film abruptly changes tone to a drama.  Miserable, overworked and persecuted, he learns real suffering.  He spends a day in the hotbox for reading a newspaper.  At his lowest point, a revival congregation allows the chain gang to watch a Mickey Mouse cartoon in their church.  All his troubles melt away as he howls with laughter at Pluto's antics.  He realizes then that he doesn't want to direct O Brother, Where Art Thou?  He sees that if he wants to help the common man, more good can be accomplished through laughter.


And that's the message of this movie, recalling the film's dedication at the beginning:
To the memory of those who made us laugh: the motley mountebanks, the clowns, the buffoons, in all times and in all nations, whose efforts have lightened our burden a little, this picture is affectionately dedicated. 

It's a message that could have gone terribly wrong.  For in order to tell the message that "laughter is the best medicine", the film loses all its laughs during the fourth act.  It's risky business and some might accuse it of hypocrisy.  However, in my opinion, the film pulls it off.  Perhaps its hand is heavy, but it is moving in its own way.

It's a pretty good film.  The laughs vary from slapstick to wordplay to high-concept comedy.
4 1/2 unscheduled returns to Hollywood out of 5

Monday, November 8, 2010

Review of American Graffiti

American Graffiti is a coming-of-age flick set in Modesto, California in 1962. It put director George Lucas in the Hollywood spotlight, made him a millionaire, and was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture. It inspired the creation of Happy Days. It is also number 62 on AFI's list, hence my watching.

Despite the praise this film has garnered, I found it to be lame. I recognized it instantly as the inspiration for another film I found lame, Dazed and Confused. Both of these films are slice-of-life, nostalgic, plotless, limp and self-indulgent. They both expect that if they feature some vehicles, showcase some stereotypical characters and make you listen to period music, you'll feel so overcome with nostalgia that you'll forget that there's no story. Some nice kid loses his innocence and his world changes forever. Next.

What is interesting about this film is that it is bad in a way much different than George Lucas' later bad work, before he got obsessed with the Hero's Journey, images moving so fast the viewer can barely see what's going on, and computer animation replacing actors. American Graffiti is very personal, not detached like his later work. There is no absurd urge to entertain the shit out of the audience so much that it's grating. Yet American Graffiti is still lame. It's boring in a very un-Lucas-like way.

Here's a question for you all. We are all aware that if a character expresses concern for the well-being of his car in a movie, something bad is going to happen to it before the end of the picture, usually several bad things. Did American Graffiti start this cliche, or was it well-known even by the time of filming?

Part of the problem is that I wasn't alive in 1962. This movie would be much more interesting to somebody who was. This review sounds like I really hated American Graffiti. That's not the case. This movie isn't terrible, it's just meh with a touch of banal. For me, movies are enjoyable if they're so terrible that they're funny. Being meh, banal and wimpy is just completely uninteresting.
2 attempts to pull booze out of 5