Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Movie Review: Transcendence

Transcendence
Directed by: Wally Pfister.
Written by: Jack Paglen.
Starring: Johnny Depp (Will Caster), Rebecca Hall (Evelyn Caster), Paul Bettany (Max Waters), Cillian Murphy (Agent Buchanan), Kate Mara (Bree), Cole Hauser (Colonel Stevens), Morgan Freeman (Joseph Tagger), Clifton Collins Jr. (Martin).

There is a kernel of a good idea at the heart of Transcendence – maybe not a terribly original idea, but an idea that could easily work as an intelligent science fiction film. The idea of the implications artificial intelligence has been a hallmark of science fiction for decades, and has produced some of the greatest novels and films the genre has ever seen. Transcendence introduces a slightly new idea to the mix – in that the A.I. is not entirely artificial. It’s actually artificial intelligence enhanced by uploading a dying, brilliant scientist’s consciousness into the program, thus solving the problem of self-awareness. But the conflict comes because the line between what is artificial and what is the man’s own consciousness becomes blurred, and the implications become incredibly scary. The film also has a good visual look. This is the directorial debut of Wally Pfister, the Oscar winning cinematographer who has worked with Christopher Nolan often – which is obvious in this film. Pfister gives the film the same basic look of Nolan’s Inception – and it is a look that works for this film. Unfortunately, the screenplay for Transcendence is poorly written – with characters, almost all of whom are geniuses and yet whose motivations make little to no sense at times, and who cannot see the obvious questions that every audience member will have staring them in the face. Couple this with an ending that tries to be profoundly ambiguous, and is really just confusing, and you end up with a film that had potential that ultimately goes unfulfilled.

The film stars Johnny Depp as Dr. Will Caster – a genius who along with his wife/partner Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) has created something called PINN – which is essentially a series of processors taking up a large room that is the first, real functioning A.I. program that they say has self-awareness. When asked if it can prove it has self-awareness, PINN turns it around on its questioner “Can you prove you have self-awareness?” Will doesn’t seem to care too much about what PINN can do – he just wants to see if he can build it. Evelyn has grander dreams of changing the world. A constantly evolving system like PINN will be more intelligent than the collective intelligence of human kind almost instantaneously – and think of what that could mean. Obviously not everyone likes what the Casters are doing – and a terrorist group known as RIFT plans coordinated attacks on A.I. labs across America – including shooting Will himself. He survives the attack – but only temporarily. The bullet was laced with radioactivity that will kill him inside a month. Evelyn refuses to let go, and with the help of Max Waters (Paul Bettany) – a scientist more interested in using technology to cure the sick than anything else – and building off the work of another one of RIFT’s victims, they discover a way to download Will’s brain into PINN. When Will dies, he is reborn in computer form – and evolves at a scary speed. Max immediately sees the error of his ways – Evelyn doesn’t. As Will becomes more powerful, he needs to set up shop somewhere else – so using the money he’s made on the stock market, he and Evelyn head out to the desert and rebuild a town to Will’s specifications.

There are many ways that Transcendence could work as a movie – but all of them involve making its characters more complex than the movie allows them to be. Depp’s performance as Will Caster is his dullest in years – but may in fact be the best one in the movie. For most the film, he is little more than a disembodied head floating on a bank of computer screens. It’s clear (to everyone in the audience anyway) that Will isn’t himself anymore once he has merged with PINN – he is basically a computer program driven mainly by logic, but also on Will’s memories (the program knows it is supposed to love Evelyn, so it does). Depp’s monotone delivery once inside the computer isn’t riveting to watch, but it’s probably the performance the movie needs (and also rather refreshing since Depp isn’t overdosing on weirdness as he’s done for far too long now). He is basically an unfeeling machine, so his lack of emotion works.

It’s the rest of the characters that don’t work. Evelyn is a Dr. Frankenstein type character who takes far too long to realize that her “husband” has become a monster. She is deluding herself from the beginning, and isolates herself (and allows computer Will to isolate her further) so she cannot see the truth – but this is a movie that supposedly takes place over the span of years, so I could never buy that she doesn’t see anything wrong with Will for that long – especially when he begins to cross all sorts of lines – in particular turning people into a network of computers he controls. Paul Bettany’s Max is another potentially interesting character the movie doesn’t know what to do with. Based on what we learn in the movie, he would have been against something like computer Will from the beginning – yet he goes along with its creation anyway. Then, once Evelyn casts him out for wanting to unplug Will, he’s kidnapped by RIFT, and held in a cage for a long period of time as they try to convince him to join them – which he eventually does. Strangely, the movie never really shows us when Max changes his mind and decides to join RIFT – and he doesn’t seem to be too angry at the fact he was treated like a prisoner either. The leader of RIFT is Bree (Kate Mara), who is another talented actor squandered by the movie. There is an irony to the fact that in RIFT’s attempt to stop A.I.’s progression, they actually give birth to the very thing they wanted to prevent – but it’s an irony that the movie doesn’t address. RIFT is a terrorist group when it suits the demands of the plot – but by the end this group, who has murdered dozens of people, is working with the government – and no one seems to bring up their terrorist roots. They simply accept them, and dive headlong into the ridiculous climax of the film. I could go on – Cillian Murphy and Morgan Freeman are given nothing to do in the film, as is Cole Hauser, who simply shows up one scene and seemingly takes over the counter-attack to Will.

The final shot in Transcendence tries for the same sort of ambiguity that the final shot in Inception achieves. The difference is the question of whether or not the top wobbles in Inception had been clearly established in the movie before – making the shot work – whereas what is implied in the final shot of Transcendence has not been. What does that final shot mean? How did it happen? The movie never explains, and as a result, it’s just as confused as the rest of the movie.

Pfister may well have a second career as a director. Cinema history has some notable examples of cinematographers turned great directors – Haskell Wexler and Nicolas Roeg – and some who made a decent career after (Ernest R. Dickeron, Barry Sonnefeld). Here Pfister shows a certain degree of promise behind the camera – at least visually speaking, which isn’t surprising. But in terms of plotting and character development, Transcendence fails pretty much completely. Whether that’s his fault or the screenplays, I don’t know – but the resulting film is a confused mess.

Movie Review: Rio 2

Rio 2
Directed by: Carlos Saldanha.
Written by: Jenny Bicks &Yoni Brenner & Carlos Kotkin and Don Rhymer and Carlos Saldanha based on characters created by Carlos Saldanha.
Starring: Jesse Eisenberg (Blu), Anne Hathaway (Jewel), Jemaine Clement (Nigel), Kristin Chenoweth  (Gabi), Jamie Foxx (Nico), will.i.am (Pedro), Andy Garcia (Eduardo), Bruno Mars (Roberto), George Lopez (Rafael), Leslie Mann (Linda), Rodrigo Santoro (Tulio), Pierce Gagnon (Tiago), Bebel Gilberto (Eva), Miguel Ferrer (Big Boss), Philip Lawrence (Felipe), Tracy Morgan (Luiz), Rita Moreno (Aunt Mimi), Amandla Stenberg (Bia), Claira Nicole Titman (Claira).

The screenplay for Rio 2 achieves something I would think to be very hard – it’s overstuffed yet incredibly lazy. This is in a film with multiple plot threads, lots of characters, several different villains, and yet none of it seems to have been fully thought through. The film, like its predecessor, seems more concerned with filling the film with the brightest colors imaginable and lots of quick movement to distract the kids in the audience. In that, I think, it works. It certainly distracted my two and half year old for the entirety of its running time. If, however, you’re looking for more from a movie than my daughter, Rio 2 doesn’t have much to offer.

When last we left the characters from Rio, Blu (voiced by Jessie Eisenberg) who was thought to be the last Blue Macaw in the world, and lived a happy life as a “companion” (don’t call him a pet) to Linda (Leslie Mann) in Minnesota, had found love with Jewel (Anne Hathaway) – who also thought she was the last Blue Macaw, and living in a bird sanctuary in Rio de Janerio. Linda herself found love with a bird expert, the goofy Tulio (Rodrigo Santoro) – and Blu had made many friends with a pair of fast talking small birds (Jamie Foxx and will.i.am) a toucan (George Lopez) and a dog, Luiz (Tracy Morgan) – and had vanquished his enemy Nigel (Jemaine Clement) – a cockatoo. Flash forward a few years, and Blu and Jewel are still happy – have three children – and look to repopulate their species (like the Bible, the question of siblings repopulating a species isn’t addressed – probably smartly). Jewel wants to raise her children like she was – wild and free – but Blu is having trouble letting go of the comforts he is accustomed to – like pancakes and TV. It’s on that TV that they see Linda and Tulio – on an expedition in the Amazon – who have found a blue macaw feather – and think there may a whole flock out there somewhere. Jewel convinces Blu to take their kids to the jungle to try and help Linda and Tulio – and most of their friends come along as well. It isn’t long before they find the flock, led by Jewel’s father Eduardo (Andy Garcia) – but also several threats. Nigel wants revenge – and has teamed up with a poisonous frog (Kristen Chenoweth) and an ant-eater. And an evil logger (Miguel Ferrar) doing illegal activity threatens the flock’s home. Then there is a rival flock of red birds that Blu inadvertently offends. Blu also has to contend with a rival for Jewel’s affection – Roberto (Bruno Mars) who is everything he isn’t – and try to win over Eduardo, who quite clearly hates him.

There is so much going on in Rio 2 that the movie is never boring exactly. It rushes from one plot to the next with lightning speed as it tries to cram everything in into its running time. It doesn’t succeed because the film is too scattershot. It seems like director Carlos Saldanha wants to ensure he has all the characters people apparently loved in the first movie, in addition to seemingly dozens of new characters as well. The results aren’t satisfying because nothing is really developed like it should be. The human characters are such an afterthought to the movie that I kept forgetting they were even there (they didn’t need to be). The highlight of the first film was Clement’s Nigel – and he’s still the best thing in this film as well – but the movie doesn’t really know what to do with him. Teaming him with Kristen Chenoweth though works – they have a musical number together that is better than anything else in the movie (the musical numbers in general, and there are several are much better than anything else here).

Had the movie been streamlined a little bit, it probably would have been better. The movie doesn’t really do anything with Linda or Tulio or the human villains, nor has anything interesting for George Lopez’s toucan or Tracy Morgan’s dog to do either – they’re just taking up time and space in the film. They have to invent an entirely superfluous subplot involving Foxx and will.i.am putting on Carnival to give them something to do – and while it doesn’t fit with the rest of the movie, it does provide the musical highlights, so I’m okay with it.

This is the 9th film by Blue Sky Animation for Twentieth Century Fox, and like all of their films, it doesn’t seem to have very much ambition other than to be a time waster for children that makes money. And their films do make money, which is why they keep making them, and keep on lacking in any real ambition. I think I’ve seen all of their films (I may have missed one of the 4 Ice Age films, but I don’t know – they all blend together in my mind), yet I can barely remember them. They offer fleeting pleasure that you forget by the time you reach the parking lot. Rio 2 offers less of that pleasure than usual. It makes me fear for their next film – Peanuts – which is full of beloved childhood icons for me. Let’s hope they don’t screw it up.

Criticwire Survey: Critical Reassessment

Q: It's starting to seem, with only a little exaggeration, that if you want long enough, eventually every once-derided movie will be proclaimed a misunderstood masterpiece. (See, among other examples, "Showgirls" or the my-neighbor's-a-porn-star comedy "The Girl Next Door.") But surely there must be cases where critics and conventional wisdom got it right the first time around, and the movie everyone thought was terrible is still terrible. What's a case where you find yourself defending history's first draft against people who want to revise the record?

For me, the answer would be Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate. The failure of this film was infamous back in 1980 – the huge cost overrun of the production, Cimino’s hubris which drove his crew mad, his hiring of armed guards to protect him from studio interference in the editing room, the disastrous premiere of his epic, four hour cut of the film in New York, which resulted in the film being pulled, and released the following year with half its running time taken out, which was even more critically lambasted. It ruined Cimino’s career, and was the last gasp of the 1970s where the studios gave young, talented directors carte blanche to make whatever they wanted. In recent years, the film has developed a huge following though – with many critics calling the film a masterpiece, one of the best Westerns ever made. It is natural, in some ways, to defend Heaven’s Gate – which represents an individual artists vision over corporate groupthink – and the stories about its production would be easily forgiven if the film had been a masterpiece – think Coppola Apocalypse Now for example. The problem with Heaven’s Gate though is that it is a terrible movie. Cimino’s extended cut is confused mess, starting with a long, dull speech from Joseph Cotton giving way to a longer, even more dull speech by John Hurt at Harvard’s graduation ceremony. From there, the film just gets worse and worse. The film is largely plotless – so much so that three hours in, I couldn’t believe that almost nothing had happened yet. The performances are awful – even from the usually reliable Christopher Walken and Isabelle Huppert – and even the epic battle than ends the films is a confused mess. The film is a revisionist, class conscious Western – which is admirable – but the film is still a barely watchable mess. The original critics were right – Heaven’s Gate sucks.

To add two more, even though in general, I’m a fan of Paul Verhoeven – but I’m with the original critics who hated Showgirls and Starship Troopers as well. Both are over-the-top camp, which would be fine if they were fun, but they’re tedious, boring and repetitive. Trying to view them as satire may well be what Verhoeven intended (in particular with Starship Troopers, where it’s undeniable) but that doesn’t make them any better. The subtext of a movie doesn’t matter much when the surface is so dull.

Friday, April 18, 2014

The Films of Jim Jarmusch: Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999)

Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999)
Directed by: Jim Jarmusch.
Written by: Jim Jarmusch.
Starring: Forest Whitaker (Ghost Dog), John Tormey (Louie), Cliff Gorman (Sonny Valerio), Frank Minucci (Big Angie), Richard Portnow (Handsome Frank), Tricia Vessey (Louise Vargo), Henry Silva (Ray Vargo), Victor Argo (Vinny), Isaach De BankolĂ©  (Raymond), Camille Winbush (Pearline), Gary Farmer (Nobody).

In his review of Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, Roger Ebert wonders why more people didn’t point out what he sees as the fact that the main character in the film is insane. Ebert’s reasoning is solid. Forest Whitaker plays the title character in modern day Jersey City as a mob assassin who lives by the ancient rules of the samurai and communicates only by carrier pigeons. That’s not normal behavior – and in fact one of the film’s funniest scenes has Louie (John Tormey), the mobster Ghost Dog works for, try and explain to his bosses what Ghost Dog’s name is and why he can’t just call him up *”Did you just say he contacts you through a bird?”). Perhaps the reason why no one mentions that Ghost Dog is insane, despite all the evidence that he is, is because he’s seems so calm, so sure of himself at every moment in the film. He lives by a code in a world where no one else does – and is willing to do anything for that code. He lives the way he does because it makes sense to him in a world where nothing else does. It gives him something to hold onto.

Like all of Jim Jarmusch’s films, Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai is strange from the beginning – it has to rank among the strangest films about a hit man ever made. Whitaker’s Ghost Dog gets himself in trouble – through no fault of his own – when he completes the first job we see him given in the movie. He is to take out a mobster who is sleeping with the boss’ daughter, Louise (Tricia Vessey). He does so, but is seen by the Louise, mean her father decides he needs to take out Ghost Dog – and perhaps Louie, the man Ghost Dog works for as well. Ghost Dog is loyal to Louie – he is his retainer, and Ghost Dog treats him as a samurai would his master – he is willing to do anything for him. With both his own life, and Louie’s, on the line, Ghost Dog decides to do the only thing he can – and kill every other mobster around. These scenes of harsh, brutal violence are contrasted against some gentler ones of Ghost Dog interacting with his best friend, Raymond (Jarmusch regular Isaach De BankolĂ©), who speaks no English, and because Ghost Dog doesn’t speak French, neither knows what the other one is saying – and a young girl named Pearline (Camille Wimbush). At times, there almost seem to be two movies going on – with only Whitaker’s eerily calm Ghost Dog connecting them.

Like his other movies, Ghost Dog is basically about an outsider – someone who doesn’t fit in with the world around him, but doesn’t really want to either. This is one of Whitaker’s best performances – the one that springs immediately to mind whenever I think of the actor. He may have won an Oscar for going over the top nasty (brilliantly) in The Last King of Scotland (2006) – but Whitaker has mainly made a career out of playing men who are somewhat gentler than his hulking appearance suggests. His Ghost Dog is willing, and able, to kill without feeling or remorse – but neither does he take pleasure in it. He is spookily calm at every point in the movie, and this makes him a strange character to center a movie around – but a perfect one for Jarmusch.

Jarmusch has fun in other areas of Ghost Dog as well – the gangsters in the film aren’t so much realistic as they are parodies of movie gangsters, and Jarmusch has fun with them as they discuss hip hop, or in one scene dance around to rap music, before Ghost Dog’s most inventive kill. Jarmusch also throws in the strange view of a man building a boat on his rooftop – how’s he going to get it down, no one knows – but it shows that at least Ghost Dog isn’t the only insane person living in this world. Gary Farmer shows up here again for one scene – once again playing a character named Nobody, and like in Dead Man, delivers the perfect line “Stupid fucking white man”. For all I know, he’s the same character as in Dead Man – more than a century later, but still going strong.

Ghost Dog is a little slighter than much of Jarmusch’s work. Like always, he’s not so much interested in plot as he is in character and mood – but at nearly two hours, the film certainly drags at points, and starts to feel repetitive. But he’s clearly having fun playing around in genre film. It isn’t the genre twisting masterwork of Dead Man, but it’s an odd, strangely hypnotic film. I’ve never seen anything quite like before – and I doubt I’ll see anything like it again anytime soon.

The Films of the Coen Brothers: O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)

O Brother, Where Art Thou (2000)
Directed by: Joel Coen & Ethan Coen.
Written by: Ethan Coen & Joel Coen based on The Odyssey by Homer.
Starring: George Clooney (Ulysses Everett McGill), John Turturro (Pete Hogwallop), Tim Blake Nelson (Delmar O'Donnell), John Goodman (Big Dan Teague), Holly Hunter (Penny), Chris Thomas King (Tommy Johnson), Charles Durning (Pappy O'Daniel), Del Pentecost (Junior O'Daniel), Michael Badalucco (George Nelson), Wayne Duvall (Homer Stokes), Ed Gale (The Little Man), Ray McKinnon (Vernon T. Waldrip), Stephen Root (Radio Station Man), Mia Tate (Siren), Musetta Vander (Siren), Christy Taylor (Siren).

Is it at all odd that I love O Brother, Where Art Thou given the fact that out of all the Coen brothers’ films, the one it most resembles is Raising Arizona – which is the one Coen brother film I really do not like? I don’t think so. While both films have a strange comic energy, that borderlines on cartoonish at times, I feel it’s more sustained this time out. The brothers also take their goofy story less seriously this time – it doesn’t really attempt the same level of serious emotion that Raising Arizona tried to, and ultimately failed to, pull off. It also has a terrific ensemble cast that doesn’t hit a false note. And perhaps most importantly, George Clooney is brilliant in the lead role as Ulysses Everett McGill, while I never thought Nicolas Cage settled into his role in Raising Arizona. Oh – and the film is also hilarious pretty much from beginning to end. That helps.

The film takes place in the South during the great depression – and begins with McGill along with Pete Hogwallop (John Turturro) and Delmar O’Donnell (Tim Blake Nelson) escaping from a chain gang. McGill has promised the two other prisoners he is shackled to a portion of the money he stole from a bank before being sent to jail - $1.2 million. If that seems to be a little too good to be true to you – well, you’re probably a whole hell of a lot smarter than Pete and Delmar who McGill, correctly, characterizes as “dumber than a sack of hammers”. The real reason McGill wants to escape is that his ex-wife Penny (Holly Hunter) has informed him that she is marrying another man – and taking their seven daughters with her. That don’t sit right with McGill – he’s the damn paterfamilias after all.

The Coens say they based the film on Homer’s The Odyssey, but also admit that they’ve never actually read it. That’s okay – I haven’t read it either, and chances are neither have you. We all know the basic story – or stories, I guess would be more accurate. Odysseus (or Ulysses) spends 10 years trying to get home to his wife, Penelope, after the fall of Troy. Like that other Ulysses, Clooney’s Ulysses has to deal with one strange event after another – one more set of people, some kind, some cruel before he can finally reach home. Along the way, they’ll meet a blind prophet, a one eyed bible salesman (John Goodman – great as always), George “Don’t Call Me Baby Face” Nelson (Michael Badalucco), Tommy Johnson (Chris Thomas King), a black guitar player who sold his soul to the devil, the beleaguered Governor of the State (Charles Durning) and his competition in the upcoming election (Wayne Duvall). They also get distracted by a mass baptism, three sirens drawing them in with their song, and finally a KKK rally, which some manages to be ridiculous and scary at the same time – full of choreographed movement, giant burning crosses, strange chants and finally the bizarre revelation that the “colored guard in colored”. Oh, and the make some money by singing into a can.

The film looks great from start to finish – not least because of Roger Deakins brilliant cinematography that makes the South look dry, dirty, dusty and somewhat burnt – the destaturated color palette being one of the most distinctive used in a Coen movie (it was one of the first movies to use digital color correction – a special feature on the DVD shows just how different the color palette of the final film was from what was shot). The production design doesn’t really recreate the South of the 1930s – but the South as seen in movies of the 1930s. The title comes from Preston Sturges’ brilliant 1941 film Sullivan’s Travels where a producer of lame comedies dreams of making an important project entitled O Brother, Where Art Thou. The Coens are obviously having fun with that – there is nothing overly important about this film – but they are also clearly admirers of Sturges – as evidenced in the dialogue in this film, much of which you could see belonging to Sturges film. The Coens do add some modern twists to the movie that would not have been done back in the 1930s and ‘40s – in particular in the way the brothers deal with race, which is subtle yet unmistakable throughout the film. The film doesn’t look through or past the black men who are so often in the background of this movie – but right at time – their pain in unmistakable, even amidst all the comic chaos that surrounds them.

None of this would work however if it weren’t for the performances – which is what I think ultimately sunk Raising Arizona for me. Holly Hunter returns from that film – and that’s appropriate because I think her Penny here may well be relative of Ed in that previous film – as both have a very direct way of putting the men in their lives in place (As a reminder, I liked Hunter in Raising Arizona –one of the few things I thought worked perfectly). It goes without saying that Goodman is great as Big Dan Teague, an untrustworthy bible salesman with one eye (his appearance at the Klan rally may be the film’s best visual gag). Tim Blake Nelson, then a relative newcomer is hilarious as the dimwitted Delmar – Nelson has had to play a few dumb rednecks in his day, but none as gloriously dumb as Delmar. John Turturro seems to be relishing what will probably be the only time he is ever cast as a Southern hillbilly. Best of all is Clooney, who plays McGill as part Clark Gable with his rugged handsomeness, and part Cary Grant with his ability to handle ridiculously convoluted comedic dialogue. I have no idea what the Coens saw Clooney in before this film that suggested he would be great in a part this broadly comedic, but whatever their reasons, it worked out.

Finally, there is the music – a glorious concoction of classic and all but forgotten Bluegrass songs, arranged by T-Bone Burnett. The soundtrack became an even bigger hit than the movie was at the time (which is moderate at best for the film – but you couldn’t go anywhere and not hear the music). It fits in nicely with the rest of the film – nostalgic, but not overly so.

The Coens have made better films that O Brother, Where Art Thou – deeper films with more resonance and even funnier films (although for most directors, O Brother Where Art Thou would easily be their funniest). The film is very much a part of the Coen world – it loves McGill, but still delights in punishing him for his sins throughout the film – although unlike most Coen protagonists, they do pretty much allow him complete redemption by the end (then again, this is one of their comedies, and they often do that here). But in its own, relatively minor (perhaps) way, O Brother, Where Art Thou is still a pretty much perfect comedy – one that remains endlessly rewatchable, and gets me laughing every time.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

The Films of Jim Jarmusch: Year of the Horse (1997)

Year of the Horse (1997)
Directed by: Jim Jarmusch.
Featuring: Neil Young and Crazy Horse.

In 1995-96, Jim Jarmusch and Neil Young collaborated on two films together. The first was Jarmusch’s Dead Man – one of his best films, and features a haunting, guitar driven score by Young. The second was Year of the Horse, a documentary about Young and his long time band Crazy Horse – which is perhaps the worst film Jarmusch has ever directed. Jarmusch had never made a documentary before, and it shows in his interviewing skills – as he gets almost nothing of any value from Young, the other members of the band or anyone else he interviews. He even keeps not one, not two, but three different instances of the guitar player basically saying that no outsider can possibly come in and document what 30 years together is really like. By the third time he says it, it feels like a confession on Jarmusch’s part – he really doesn’t capture what being together that long is like.

The movie is made up mostly of concert footage shot in 1996 – along with new interviews – shot, it appears, in someone’s dingy laundry room for reasons I do not understand as well as footage from previous tours in 1986 and 1976. The old footage, presented without context, really doesn’t add anything to the movie – except to show you how much Young and everyone else has aged over the 20 years the footage spans. The one exception could be a scene where Young is angry because the other members screwed up the arrangement on stage that night (we do not see footage of that, of course) – which hints at the more complex relationship Young and this band actually has, that Jarmusch was unable to capture. There is a reason that Young continues to come back and record and tour with Crazy Horse  -it seems like it recharges their batteries. They have a sound that is described throughout the movie as “raw” and their concerts basically look like jam sessions. Yet there is also a reason why Young often records his best music with others and not Crazy Horse – and why he has at times started recording with Crazy Horse, and then re-recorded everything with other musicians. The members of Crazy Horse admit there are a lot better musicians out there then they are – and Young knows it as well. You’ll hear a lot of songs in Year of the Horse – and none of them are among the best of Young’s long career. Young can go on all he likes about his while everyone else’s jacket says “Neil Young and Crazy Horse”, while his just says Crazy Horse – but they really are Neil Young and Crazy Horse. The other band members are not on Young’s level – and they all know it. Any bitterness, resentment or anger there may be is left off-screen, which is disappointing.

Basically, the interviews are shallow and superficial. They offer no real insight into what makes this band work as well as they do, or what has kept them together. Either Jarmusch lacked the skills to get the band to be introspective, or else they didn’t want to go there and Jarmusch didn’t push. You aren’t really going to learn much from them.

But this is, more than anything, a concert documentary – so who cares about the interviews as long as the music is great, right? That would be true, except the music in Year of the Horse isn’t all that good. I’m a Neil Young fan – and I loved Jonathan Demme’s Heart of Gold – another Young concert doc from a few years ago. Yet in Year of the Horse, the songs go on forever. Basically the band sings the first verse and the chorus of each song, and then the whole thing quickly devolves into minute after minute of what would charitably described as a “jam session” – that is mainly wordless, with guitar that provide more feedback than anything else. It doesn’t help that Jarmusch decided to shoot on Super 8 (and “Proudly”, the opening credits inform us) – which I suppose was an attempt to make the film look as “raw” as the band – but basically has the effect of making everything look dingy, grimy and dirty – and also hurts the sound quality. I don’t think shooting on any type of film would have saved some of the songs – that drone on and on and on for what seems like forever (I think a few hit 10 minutes) – but it couldn’t possibly have hurt.

Some directors are naturals when they move over the documentary films from a long career in features. Martin Scorsese has been able to make several great docs – and two great concert films as well. Spike Lee has been able to cross that line as well. As Year of the Horse is still the only documentary and concert film on Jarmusch’s resume, the evidence so far suggests he is not one of those directors. Apparently he’s working on a documentary about The Stooges. Hopefully he learned some lessons from Year of the Horse, and that film will be better than this one. But if I learn nothing else from that other than that Iggy Popp’s jacket just said The Stooges, and everyone else’s jacket says Iggy Popp & the Stooges, I’ll be disappointed.

The Films of the Coen Brothers: The Big Lebowski (1998)

The Big Lebowski (1998)
Directed by: Joel Coen & Ethan Coen.
Written by: Ethan Coen & Joel Coen.
Starring: Jeff Bridges (Jeffrey Lebowski - The Dude), John Goodman (Walter Sobchak), Julianne Moore (Maude Lebowski), Steve Buscemi (Theodore Donald 'Donny' Kerabatsos), David Huddleston (Jeffrey Lebowski - The Big Lebowski), Philip Seymour Hoffman (Brandt), John Turturro (Jesus Quintana), Sam Elliott (The Stranger), Tara Reid (Bunny Lebowski), Peter Stormare (Nihilist #1, Uli Kunkel / 'Karl Hungus'), Flea (Nihilist #2, Kieffer), David Thewlis (Knox Harrington), Ben Gazzara (Jackie Treehorn), Jon Polito (Da Fino).

The Big Lebowski would easily make my personal list of the 10 funniest films ever made. Like other films that would probably make that list, film somehow manages to be funny every time you see it. I don’t know how many times I’ve watched The Big Lebowski at this point in my life – I’d say, at least 15 – and yet every time I watch it, I cannot help but laugh pretty much from beginning to end. Comedy is subjective of course – my wife watched the first hour of the film and hated it so much she turned it off. So be it – she doesn’t know what she’s missing.

The film is basically like a Raymond Chandler detective story, yet instead of a brilliant Philip Marlowe as our protagonist, we get Jeff “The Dude” Lebowski (Jeff Brides) – an aging hippie in early 1990s Malibu. He is unemployed – and has been for a while. Where he gets his money, I have no idea. He spends his days in a blissful haze of marijuana smoke and the buzz he gets off White Russians. The only place he has to be is the bowling alley. His teammates are Walter Sobchak (John Goodman) – also a relic of the 1960s, but just about the complete opposite of The Dude – a crazed, militaristic Vietnam vet and gun nut, and Donny Kerabatsos (Steve Buscemi) – who barely gets to say a word, because The Dude pretty much ignores every he says, and Walter keeps tell him to shut the fuck up. Donny doesn’t care – as long as he’s throws rocks, he’s happy to be in their company.

Then one day two men enter the Dude’s apartment and demand the money. The push his head into the toilet, and tell him that since his wife owes money to Jackie Treehorn that means he owes money to Jackie Treehorn. One of them – who the Dude will refer to as the Chinaman for the rest of the movie – even pees on his rug, which is a shame because it really ties the room together. There is a problem of course – The Dude isn’t married. He figures out that these two must have been looking for the other Jeff Lebowski (David Huddleston) – a millionaire philanthropist, with a young trophy wife named Bunny (Tara Reid). The Dude goes to see the other Lebowski in the hopes of being reimbursed for the rug – and thus gets involved in a complicated plot that involves kidnapping, nihilists, a strange performance artist (Julianne Moore) her stranger friends, a bowler named Jesus, pornographers and interpretive dance. Through it all, Sam Elliot – wearing a cowboy hat and perhaps having the best mustache in movie history, acts as our guide and narrator – although sometimes even he loses his train of thought.

The film was not a big hit back in 1998 – grossing only about $17 million in North America. But it has gone on to become one of the biggest cult movies of all time, inspiring annual conventions, a ton of merchandise, and a host of books on how to live like Lebowski and the philosophy of the Dude. Why does the movie touch people like this? Perhaps it’s because the Dude seems so contented throughout the movie – even when things seem to be at their bleakest. Like many Coen protagonists, The Dude spends the film getting tormented – he has his face shoved in a toilet, he gets beat up, he has a coffee cup thrown at his head, he’s drugged more than once, he has his car stolen and trashed, then gets it back only to have it trashed some more and eventually get set on fire, and pretty much everyone he meets thinks he’s an idiot. And yet, The Dude abides. He soldiers on, and finds happiness where he can. I imagine him listening to the monologue by Frances McDormand at the end of Fargo and being in complete agreement. Jeff Bridges is a great actor who has delivered any number of great performances in his career that pretty much started at birth, but to many he’ll always be associated with The Dude. If it’s not his greatest performance – and I would argue that it is – it’s certainly his most iconic one.

Not to be outdone, Coen regular John Goodman delivers a performance of hilarious, crazed intensity as Walter. The Coen’s based his character on writer/director John Milius, and Goodman nails the look and mannerisms of the famed right wing artist. You wouldn’t think that The Dude and Walter would get along so well – they seem like complete opposites politically, but the two never really discuss politics – although the Dude does get exasperated when Walter keeps bringing up Vietnam (my favorite Vietnam related line “This is bowling, not Vietnam, Smoke. There are rules”). The rest of the cast – from Buscemi to Huddleston to a Julianne Moore, with a strange accent, to John Turturro warning everyone “Not to fuck with the Jesus”, to Philip Seymour Hoffman as Lebowski’s sycophant of an assistant, to Ben Gazzara as a pornographer, to Davis Thewlis, in a one scene performance of pure absurd brilliance, are also spot on. The Coens have a way of figuring out the perfect actors for their films, and are seldom wrong.

As we have come to expect from the brothers as well, The Big Lebowski is endlessly visually inventive – from the exaggerated production design on The Big Lebowski’s house, to the bizarre, drug induced dream sequences/musical numbers, to a shot that quite literally looks out from inside a bowling ball, the Coens do not seem to be happy unless they are endlessly trying something new. Their meticulous attention to detail and their control freak ways may seem at odds with a story as loose as the one here – but I think it helps to keep the movie from going too far over the top. For what The Big Lebowski is, it’s pretty much perfect.