Sex, Lies, and Videotape

Sex, Lies, and Videotape

I’ve got a lot of problems… But they belong to me.

I was surprised that I hadn’t seen Sex, Lies, & Videotape until now, especially considering how much of a fan I am of Steven Soderbergh and his films. This, his debut feature, only barely registers as a Soderbergh film, and really only then after one takes that knowledge into account and really begins looking for it. What is here, and in readily viewable form, is a very interesting and surprisingly frank expose on relationships, if only between the people involved in the film’s plot. It basically revolves around four characters, and how the arrival of one of them interrupts the delicate equilibrium that had been balancing between the other three up to that point. Simple premise, and quite an open one, and Soderbergh thankfully makes full use of it.

Ann is a housewife in Baton Rouge, married to John, with whom she has a tenuous relationship at best. They barely talk, or at least anything beyond the superficial, and they have pretty much stopped having sex altogether, though this may also be because John is having an affair with Ann’s younger sister Cynthia. In enters Graham, John’s old college friend, who comes to town looking for a place to stay before he can find an apartment. John has offered, and it is Graham’s entrance into the dynamic that causes a lot of secrets and repressed emotions to come out into the light, especially when the others discover Graham’s hobby of making videotapes of him talking with women about their sexual lives. The plot is probably even more basic than I’ve already laid out here, with plot developments occurring only sporadically, and then only because they naturally develop after the characters have been interacting and evolving with each other. That’s really what this one is about, and it’s thanks to Soderbergh’s script and the excellent performances by the actors that it is more than enoug hto carry the film through its deceptively brief running time. In particular, accolades should be (and were) given to James Spader as Graham; at face value, he doesn’t appear to be doing much, but just like the film’s plot, that is in and of itself the essence and skill in what he is doing. It’s the little tics and imperfections that Spader effortlessly interjects into the character’s face and dialogue that makes it come off so natural, and I honestly think it’s a performance that many other actors can watch and learn and take a lesson from.

I honestly can’t believe this won the Palme d’Or; this is way too engaging and entertaining a film for the Cannes jury to stoop down and give the top prize to. It’s actually making me a little frustrated, that other films with not even half the entertainment value of this one could still manage the win, which to me just seems to degrade the actual award given to this one in return. I honestly can’t think of a Soderbergh film I’ve seen that I haven’t enjoyed, and that streak remains alive with Sex, Lies, and Videotape. I’m glad I did finally see this, and I think you’ll be glad if you take the time to see it as well.

Arbitrary Rating: 8/10

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The Night of the Shooting Stars (La notte di San Lorenzo)

The Night of the Shooting Stars

Don’t sleep yet.

I couldn’t seem to gather much on The Night of the Shooting Stars before I started it, which naturally made me somewhat hesitant toward the prospects of this one. All I could find was that it was another WWII film, and that there were some fantasy elements added, but that was about it. Now, after seeing it, I understand why there is an apparent lack of info about this one; it basically sticks to the surface level of its story without delving any deeper into what the story could really be. I’ve used the analogy before about how some films are so featureless that they’re like looking at a bare white wall and trying to describe it in-depth to others. The Night of the Shooting Stars is another of these films.

In a small town in Italy, on the cusp of the end of World War II, the German forces will eventually retreat through the village, basically destroying everything in their wake as a final act of retribution against the Allied forces coming to liberate the country. The town has been informed that anyone not wishing to die by either the Germans bombing the town or by the foot-soldiers coming through is to go to the cathedral in the town, which will be left alone. A small group of townsfolk don’t buy it, however, and they defy the 3 am deadline imposed by the Germans to head out on their own and find the liberating American troops that are rumored to be nearby. If that plot summary seems a little too far removed from the actual story, that’s because it is. If you were to ask me the names of the main characters, I wouldn’t be able to tell you; if you asked about the plot developments, I’d point to the above and basically say “that”. This is the highest I’ve ever seen a high concept film; one that doesn’t bother to flesh out its premise into a full story with engaging characters, but instead takes the premise and goes with only that for a solid 100 minutes. It made for a rather unengaging watch, even if it was somewhat of an easy one thanks to the film’s good production work and fairly solid editing. There was one foible I found with the editing, however; the film would occasionally make use of a wipe cut, like from Star Wars, which seemed really out of place and immediately took me out of the film whenever it appeared.

This is an interesting one for me to try and review, especially looking over other people’s reviews of it; I agree with pretty much everything that’s been said, both positively and negatively, and yet, at the same time, I find myself with nothing to say about it. Sure, it’s real, it’s committed, it’s tragic, it’s hopeful, it’s all of these things. But it is also unremarkable, run-of-the-mill, with a production that’s virtually invisible (aside from the wipe cuts), which can be a good thing, but here it leaves the film with no features to make note of. The Night of the Shooting Stars has its place in the genre of WWII films, but at the same time, its place doesn’t seem all that justified in the face of all the other films of the genre. This ended up being another superfluous entry in the list for me, and it was a bit of a shame that I had to wait this long to watch this, as I would’ve preferred to get films like this over with somewhere in the middle of my quest. Oh well, one more down.

Arbitrary Rating: 7/10

Bull Durham

Bull Durham

I believe in the Church of Baseball.

And another baseball film makes the list. It was for that reason alone I was ready to generally dismiss Bull Durham, but damn if I didn’t get a heck of a lot more wrapped up in it than I was prepared for. I find it amusing that the label “that Kevin Costner baseball film” doesn’t narrow it down to one picture, not even on the list anymore, and add The Natural into the mix and you’ve got quite the baseball trifecta going on. Thankfully, Bull Durham gives a different enough experience to justify its own existence, and maybe even its slot on the list, if only barely for the latter.

Kevin Costner is Crash Davis, a long-time catcher in the minor leagues who gets brought on to the Durham Bulls to bring up Ebby LaLoosh, played by Tim Robbins, a hotshot new pitcher with the talent for “The Show” but no skill or discipline to back it up; hence why Crash is hired to straighten him into a real star. Along the way, baseball fan and frequenter of the Durham games, Annie, ends up in a sort-of love triangle with the two men, providing an extra bit of conflict outside the diamond. The plot was okay; it got the job done, if sometimes tangentially, but for my money, what really makes this film is the characters. Crash rarely does what a decent person would expect in any situation, and it became a fun game of “what’s he gonna do now?” with every passing scene. Robbins, usually the slick or studded straight-man dramatic player, here gives most of the comic relief through generally acting like the dunderhead his character is, which was somewhat out of step for him, though you wouldn’t think it watching him in this. I should also give special mention to the soundtrack, which chose damn near the perfect song for whatever scene or scenario it was used in, which provided an even greater bit of surface-level enjoyment to the film. I found it appropriate that the first credit to roll by in the ending credits was the music supervisor for this reason.

The ending did go on a little longer than it should’ve, but that aside, there was a good deal to like about this one. Many have said that there’s more to this than just being a baseball film, and they’re right, but what I especially enjoyed was how every other thing that could reasonably be cited as the core of the film all somehow related back to baseball either way. It’s a baseball film, and it’s more than that, but it was how it was more than that that made it even more of a baseball film; a funny little ongoing loop that I’m sure was the filmmakers’ intent. This was fairly enjoyable, and decently well made, though again I’m not sure the list needs three baseball films on it, but I’ll take it either way.

Arbitrary Rating: 8/10

She’s Gotta Have It

She's Gotta Have It

“I’m everything that you need!” “You are tripping.”

She’s Gotta Have It, Spike Lee’s debut feature, is often lumped with Stranger Than Paradise as being at the forefront of the new wave of American independent cinema. Now, even with what Lee has done since, I still feel a little like a cat being rubbed the wrong way when I opt to start one of his films, pretty much solely because of Lee himself and not because of the films he makes. I will admit; he knows what he’s doing behind the camera, even if he could use some polishing classes when he’s not in that particular position. So, to watch She’s Gotta Have It, even with it being Lee’s first feature, and seeing all the cogs and gears and string that is the finished film, only barely held together, it was a bit of a surprise.

The film follows Nola Darling, and yes, that is apparently her last name, as she tries to live her life in Brooklyn, juggling the affections of three guys, and having fun with her friends, as they apparently only talk about Nola and her relationships with the three guys in question; the film really doesn’t seem to pass the Bechdel test, and if it does it only scrapes by. But yeah, that’s the general gist of the film; where She’s Gotta Have It offers a unique experience is that probably half of the film is the characters talking directly into the camera, as if the film were a documentary on Nola, spouting exposition about her past and their relationship with her as if they were reciting memorized lines, which they literally are. Really, it’s amazing what three short years can do for a filmmaker. In 1989, Do the Right Thing would be an excellent treatise on how to write, shoot, and edit a great film. Here, merely three years earlier, Lee puts together a film with patchwork and rope-ties, with stilted delivery from the actors (including Lee), and a method of shooting shots and editing them together that seemed straight out of a film student textbook. I can see why this gets lumped with Stranger than Paradise often; the two films are very similar, and if you’ve read my review of Stranger than Paradise, you know that isn’t really a good thing. Even the subject matter seemed right out of some pre-agreed-upon list of subjects for independent films to cover; sex, young people living on their own, and trying to find one’s way in life. The one thing I could tell was at least competently done was the script, which I expected out of Lee, but I expected a lot more than that, and pretty much nothing else lived up to those expectations. Special mention should be made to the abrupt switch to color in the middle of the film for a dance number, after which it returns to black-and-white; even though I knew it was there, it still took me mildly by surprise.

I can see the reasoning the editors of the list had when they gave Spike Lee two slots in the Book and gave the other one to this film. That said, I don’t agree with it. If it weren’t for this film’s position as one of the premier American independent films of the 1980s, then this shouldn’t have made the list at all. Much has been said about how She’s Gotta Have It changed how cinema treated black people from then on, no longer as a stereotype but just as intelligent and diversified as white people. I can attest to that; this film is well written at the least, and that it deals with African-American characters is only due to Lee’s decision to do so. But, that’s all I can say about it; at the very least, indeed.

Arbitrary Rating: 6/10

Atlantic City

Atlantic City

You’re back on the map. Again.

Atlantic City was another film I went into with basically no expectations, and yet the film somehow managed to match them. What I found weirdest of all was that this was directed by French director Louis Malle, responsible for Au Revoir Les Enfants and Murmur of the Heart; this is about as far removed from the idyllic coming-of-age stories of those films as you can get. Why he directed this, I don’t know; how the film even got made, I haven’t a clue. All I can say is, for a film as critically lauded as this was, I couldn’t help but feel a little let down.

Lou is an old man and former man of the streets in Atlantic City, who currently spends his days tending to similarly-elderly Grace, who belittles him at every turn, and watching his youthful neighbor Sally wash herself with lemon juice through the windows. Eventually, fate throws him and Sally together, along with a fresh direction for Lou, when Sally’s husband shows up from drifting across the country with a stolen bag of drugs, which he soon divvies up with Lou after finding someone willing to buy it. Trouble is, the drugs belong to the mob, which soon comes rushing back into Lou’s life, amid his attempts to woo Sally. I don’t know what I was expecting with Atlantic City; maybe something a little showier, more akin to Nashville, than the almost neorealist landscape and narrative in this film. I saw a review for this one that compared it favorably to Fat City, and I found the comparison spot on; this film would be very suited among all the low-level neorealist dramas that 1970s independent Hollywood produced, like Fat City. Everything seemed to be exactly as it was found by the production team; all real locations, which the characters merely inhabit over the course of the film, giving bare-bones realistic performances, and being content merely to exist rather than actively trying for greatness. Granted, Burt Lancaster was excellent in this, but that would be pretty much the only actual compliment I could give the film.

This ended up being one of the few films to be nominated for all five of the Big 5 Academy Awards: Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, and Screenplay, and one of the even fewer films among those to not take home a single one of those awards. Frankly, I don’t know how it even got most of those nominations; Lancaster for Actor I could see, but everything else was so middle-of-the-road that it came off as far too unremarkable enough to warrant most of the nominations it got. I didn’t hate the film, or even really dislike it, but there was nothing to it enough for me to say that I liked it all around. It’s a little disappointing that I had to wait until the last leg of my quest to watch this one, but at least I did get it out of the way.

Arbitrary Rating: 7/10

Body Heat

Body Heat

It’s the only way we can have everything we want, isn’t it?

Body Heat is another one I was reluctant to begin, mostly because I didn’t think the film would be all that interesting to me. That, and it was directed by Lawrence Kasdan (his debut in the director’s chair, actually), who I’ll acknowledge as a good screenwriter, but haven’t seen enough good stuff from him to make the same remark toward his directing abilities. For once, in a string of surprise finds from the list, my preconceptions were right on the mark. This is a nice film, and a good (maybe even great) neo-noir, but I don’t think it was for me.

William Hurt is Ned Racine, a lawyer in Florida working during a particularly scathing heat wave. He meets married woman Matty Walker, falls for her, and successfully beds her; they quickly grow attached to each other. Of course, she is married, and soon enough, they begin to make plans to kill her husband to inherit half of his estate. Things don’t end up playing out exactly to their expectations, however, and Ned swiftly realizes how in over his head he really is. Right from the start, the film wants you to know how much this was influenced my noir films of the past, opening with a sultry and seductive jazz saxophone score playing over the opening credits. This film wears its noir influences on its sleeve openly and proudly, maybe a little too proudly; aside from the genre, there’s very little to this one. It’s well made, sure, but nothing to sneeze at, from the acting to the cinematography to the script. Even the noir elements were average at best, especially for a film made in the early 80s. Overall, there was a little too much romantic melodrama, which threatened to overpower the noir elements, and sometimes did. If that sounds like your cup of tea, give this a try, but it just never seemed to be my flavor. Additional side note: I couldn’t believe how much Ted Danson looked like Elliot Gould when he first showed up on screen. I actually double-checked the cast list in the Book to see who it really was.

Body Heat has been called by some one of the first neo-noir films, a label the film tries its hardest to earn, and earn it does. In fact, that’s basically all that this film does, and wants to do; it zeroes in on the noir influences and amps them up to eleven, almost without a care as to knowing why they should be used. It knows how to use them, all right, but there doesn’t seem to be a reason other than, “Well, that’s how the noirs do it”. I can’t really begrudge the film for doing so, but it doesn’t seem to make the film a classic for all time, or otherwise a must see. Maybe my standards were (or are) a little too idealistic, but I expected better from Kasdan’s directorial debut. This has everything a neo-noir lover would want in a film, but for me, I ended the film having continually asked the question, “Why?”, and it’s one I’m not sure the film knows how to answer.

Arbitrary Rating: 7/10

A Fish Called Wanda

A Fish Called Wanda

I love robbing the English. They’re so polite!

I hadn’t seen A Fish Called Wanda in so long, I was worried that what few memories I had of it were too colored by hindsight and nostalgia, and that the film itself couldn’t possibly match what I remembered. Good thing the film was too happy with having a good time to be worried about my preconceptions. A Fish Called Wanda had quite the pedigree, with Charles Crichton as director and co-screenwriter, his partner in writing the script, John Cleese, who also stars, alongside his Monty Python mate Michael Palin, with Jamie Lee Curtis and Kevin Kline rounding out the main characters. Is the film ultimately worth the efforts of those involved? Yes, yes it is.

Curtis and Kline are Wanda and Otto, two would-be master thieves and lovers (under the guise of brother and sister) who get brought onto a jewel heist in London with actual robber George and his stuttering co-worker Ken. After the robbery, a convoluted series of events leaves George in jail, the only one with the knowledge of where the stolen diamonds are, and Wanda and Otto desperate to glean the information out of him, even after being the ones who turned George in. To get the info, Wanda decides to seduce George’s barrister, Archie Leach (Cleese), a plan of action that Otto is none too thrilled with, and hilarity ensues as everyone involved tries to get their hands on where the jewels are hiding. Hilarity aside, this was a pretty nice production, in particular the writing and the acting. But A Fish Called Wanda isn’t on the list for those things (though they do help a good deal); A Fish Called Wanda is generally regarded as one of the funniest films of all time. It’s technically a British film, and with two Pythons in the cast (with one writing the screenplay), you can bet your salt that the film will be rife with British humor. Now, British humor can be a good thing or a poor thing, depending on one’s mood and general proclivity towards comedy, but here, it works splendidly. Much of the humor comes from the characters interacting with each other in various ways, and it is here that Kline’s Otto ends up stealing the show, as he is largely responsible for generally cocking things up with his antics. Best of all, I loved when the film would self-reference by using recurring jokes, which I’ve always found to be the funniest kind. Really, there’s so many different types of humor here that there’s basically no reason to not find something to enjoy about this film, as long as you have a funny bone in the first place.

There’s a story, even included on the film’s Wikipedia page (as of this writing), that a Danish man actually died laughing while watching this film. Obviously, since I’m writing this, I didn’t have nearly the same reaction as that man did, but I still had a ripping good time. A Fish Called Wanda, uncommon for a comedy, ended up with three Academy Award nominations, for Crichton as director, Crichton and Cleese as screenwriters, and Kline as supporting actor, with Kline famously winning the award, exceptionally rare for a comedic performance, especially in this day and age. That, to me, only adds to the pedigree I’ve mentioned regarding this one’s credentials. It may not get enough votes to be called the most classic comedy on the list, but A Fish Called Wanda is definitely in the running for the title of one of the funniest.

Arbitrary Rating: 8/10