Coffee and Cigarettes (2003) (W)

IMDb / Ebert
Written and Directed by Jim Jarmusch

So much of Coffee and Cigarettes is dull, uninspired and near worthless, with only some beautiful black and white cinematography propping it up. Certain segments, however, are quite brilliant – patches of genuine greatness amongst a whole lot of nothing. (When I think about it, you could probably say the same thing about Jarmusch’s recent Broken Flowers). The segments in question are entitled ‘Cousins’ and ‘Cousins?’, and rather than relying on the beauty of their images to make them remotely worthwhile, they would have been just as intriguing had they been shot on low-definition digital video or Super 8 film.

‘Cousins’ stars Cate Blanchett as herself and as her fictional cousin Shelly. The character Cate is a famous movie star, back home in Australia on the press junket, and she’s taking a few minutes off to see her cousin, Shelly. Shelly is stereotypical Aussie white trash with a broad accent and a straight-ahead way of thinking, which is not without insight. The way they interact is such a treat to watch, because they behave exactly like real people, even though they are caricatures.

Shelly’s behaviour is cold and somewhat cynical, but it is totally genuine. With her, we never get the feeling she’s concealing anything, or putting on a mask to satisfy the company she’s with. She lies, but she does it out of boredom, not malice. Cate, on the other hand, is more or less just going through the motions, smiling widely and emptily while she searches for words to fill the silences. She wants to engage in equal conversation with this person, her cousin, but she quickly loses the required effort to make it happen. She betrays her lack of interest by getting names wrong. They’re so different, what would they have to talk about?

Their stilted conversation is so divine and rare in cinema, and extremely unusual in a film in which most characters seem like just that – characters, there to speak cool or contrived dialogue, not to come across like real people. I don’t know how improvised it is, but going by the rest of the film, I’ll give a little credit to Jarmusch and a lot to Blanchett. She is so good here – not only did I forget she was playing two parts, but I forgot she was playing a version of herself. And she is exceptionally beautiful, but that goes without saying.

‘Cousins?’ stars Alfred Molina and Steve Coogan, two fine British actors. Molina has broken into the US market and put down roots in L. A.; Coogan only visits the States when he has to, despite a growing profile there and a desire to become more famous. They have obviously never met before, and like the cousins of the earlier segment, they engage in awkward conversation that never really has a chance to get going. Molina is too friendly and genuine, and Coogan too guarded and cynical.

The difference here is that this is a meeting that was set up (by Molina) for a reason, and when that information is revealed, Coogan becomes even more guarded and disinterested, and we wait for the painful episode to end, knowing that they’ll probably never see each other again. But then the dynamic changes again, and suddenly the tables are turned. Being such good actors, Molina and Coogan totally nail it. I’ve admired the work of both of them in anything they’ve done, as comic and dramatic actors, and never for a moment does this episode feel forced or artificial. It doesn’t quite have the great layers of subtext that ‘Cousins’ has – this is more of a directly told story – but it is still great.

The others… well, the Iggy Pop/Tom Waits one was pretty good, and the one with GZA, RZA and Bill Murray was entertaining, as was the one with the White Stripes, but each of these suffered from trying too hard to be cool. The rest were all bores, and only those two discussed earlier transcended the screen to really leave an impression. They are so excellent that you should see Coffee and Cigarettes just for them, a pair of diamonds amongst a collection of dullards. I’m not motivated to see any more Jarmusch in a hurry, even though many say he is great; most of what I’ve seen seems to have focused on feeling and looking really hip, forgetting to actually mean anything of consequence. I’ll hopefully be proved wrong.

Quick Change (1990) (C)

IMDb / Ebert
Based on the novel by Jay Cronley
Written by Howard Franklin
Directed by Howard Franklin and Bill Murray

Quick Change is an unusual beast. It’s derivative of hundreds of other heist/getaway films, but it stars Bill Murray and Jason Robards in the crook and cop roles. It’s a comedy, but there are no big laughs to be had. There are a couple of swear words which, if removed, would have earned the film a PG-13 rating in the USA, and opened it up to a wider audience who might have been able to enjoy it more. (At this point the review could easily degenerate into a criticism of modern censorship, in particular the MPAA, but you already know how ridiculous it is so I won’t bother.)

It’s also Murray’s only credit as director. Co-director, actually. His pal Howard Franklin had written the script and he was attached to star, but they couldn’t find someone to direct it, so they decided to do it themselves. Not surprisingly, they take few risks. In fact, the film looks and feels like so many other films of the period that, over time, it will likely become indistinguishable from them in my memory. It’s utterly mediocre, totally unmemorable, but passable entertainment for an hour and a half. It’s the sort of film a nine year-old boy might watch over and over again because it was the first film of its kind he’d seen, and maybe revisit for nostalgic purposes later in life (probably to be disappointed).

Is that good enough? Is it okay for just that kid to get a real kick out of it? At least it isn’t a shameless, money-grabbing exercise, like a really bad sequel, or a film that coasts on the stature of its stars without making any effort to be good. Quick Change is far more noble than those films, because its agenda is simply to entertain you – it makes it a lot easier to forgive than if it had clearly been focused on your wallet. But look again at the picture above: it sums up the film, and those hundreds of other films like it. It’s Bill Murray, a big star whom millions of people love to watch, dressed up as a clown whose purpose it is to entertain. He’s not smiling. His heart isn’t in it. He’s put on all this makeup and silly clothes and said “Laugh at me”, but it’s hard for us to laugh because we can tell he isn’t really enjoying it himself. It’s not like he lacks sincerity, but he’s distracted, and we can see that.

This isn’t to say Murray is bad. He’s the same as ever, which is fine, but it’s clear he doesn’t really believe in the material. The other actors are the same, going through the motions, except Randy Quaid whose hideous overacting can be painful. It’s work, a job to pay the bills in-between the good scripts they might sometimes be able to do. There are no behind the scenes interviews on this DVD, but if there were, I don’t think anyone from the cast or crew would be saying “As soon as I read the script I just had to do it”, or “My job is easy because the material is so good”; they’d be saying “I really admire my colleagues, and it’s a pleasure to work with them”. And, like the clown who isn’t smiling, we wouldn’t really believe them.

Throw in a typically grating early 90s score, and you have a film that is average-to-poor in all respects. Reviews of such films are hardest, because there’s nothing to champion and nothing to rail against. They’re just there, and you’ve seen them, and you don’t care about them any more. I would recommend Quick Change only to Murray and Robards completists, but even those people will almost certainly get a greater kick out of watching Groundhog Day for the 37th time.

A History of Violence (2005) (F)

IMDb / Ebert / Cale
Based on some graphic novel
Written by Josh Olson
Directed by David Cronenberg

I’m moved to write about A History of Violence after writing about Caché, because they are a pair of films with similar ideas at their centre; while Caché hits all the right marks and transcends any sort of label, A History of Violence is a gigantic miss on all fronts. A buzz went up this time last year as it premiered at Cannes, with critics hailing it as Cronenberg’s return to form after years of mediocrity. When it went on general release in the USA, the buzz became a near across-the-board celebration of what almost every critic deemed to be one of the greatest films of the year. They’re all wrong.

As I got up out of my seat and walked towards the exit after the end credits rolled, I was frowning in disgust at having wasted my time on such rubbish. (Fortunately I saw it for free, so I wasn’t out of pocket to boot.) Here is a film that (if you believe the majority of critics) promises deep intelligence and insight into our perceptions of violence as moviegoers and citizens, but delivers hackneyed themes, practically invisible character motivations, and utterly implausible plot turns. When one character, supposedly a ruthless badass, stuck his gun UNDER HIS ARM to fumble in his pocket I was ready to throw shit at the screen – in all bad movies there is a final straw, a nadir, at which point you admit to yourself, “This is an unmitigated piece of shit”, and this particular scene was it.

I digress. A History of Violence starts kind of promisingly. Two evil bastards kill the family running their hotel, including an innocent-looking child, and it is kind of chilling until we cut to Tom Stall’s (Viggo Mortensen) daughter having a nightmare and being comforted by her entire family. It’s a picture of idyllic middle America, and we know immediately that it will be shattered, suggesting rather heavy-handedly that middle America isn’t so idyllic, and harbours secrets and past that people hide. As if we didn’t know that already. The idyll is broken when the two evil bastards come into Stall’s Diner for a bit of ultra-violence, and Stall takes them out in a heart-pumping blaze of cold, calculated killing. He’s a hero, his family and town get behind him, brilliant.

Then some mysterious gangsters from Philadelphia turn up, and despite the obvious connection between them and Stall – he used to work for them, or against them, or something, who cares – the film takes plenty of time setting up another bloody confrontation. After that is done with, we descend from implausibility into farce. Many would tell me that it isn’t supposed to be realistic, it’s all theory, and what theory, but I say bollocks – I can handle things being removed from reality, but I can’t handle them if they say nothing new and, often, say things that are flat-out false.

Take the sub-plot of Stall’s son, Jack. We see him being bullied at school and not really doing anything about it, but after Dad executes two baddies and is lionized, Jack takes his revenge for all the hazing and beats his nemesis to a bloody pulp. Why? Because violence is ingrained in him, in all humans but particularly him because his father passed it on to him, and it was released by that public approval. I get it, and it isn’t particularly profound, or necessarily correct. However, it gets worse as Jack inexplicably uses violence again, this time to a much longer lasting effect. The final insult, the most incredible in a series of stupidly contrived situations, comes when Jack (out of nowhere) confronts his father, spouting some of the worst dialogue in years. The whole things smacks of pretension, of trying desperately to be profound and knowing but falling way short.

There are other scenes involving Mr. and Mrs. Stall that are ridiculous too – not so much the sex scenes, not even the rough one, but the words spoken and not spoken. They feel very much like characters in a movie, compelled to say or do one thing when logic would imply a different reaction, or to say something when nothing is said at all. Their dialogue illuminates no deeper truth; it serves only to further alienate one already pretty peeved audience member. Likewise, the villains (Ed Harris and William Hurt) are cut from the same unbelievable, clichéd cloth. Most of the actors in this film usually do good work, but they all fail in this film because the material they are given cannot be made good.

Going back to the three pivotal scenes of violence, each includes at last one image of shocking depravity – a dripping face, a missing nose – apparently (according to what I’ve been told) typical of Cronenberg. Why were these brief moments inserted? Not to titillate, I’m sure, but to stun. In the context of the rest of the film, though, they just don’t fit. They seem to have come from another film universe, maybe one of Cronenberg’s other films, intruding on this dull, improbable landscape with their brutal realism. This may be precisely the point: violence is shocking and visceral, not something that goes along with our happy ideals. However, as I say, this doesn’t fit, because the film seems to suggest that violence is innate and will happen regardless of how we otherwise behave. It’s an aesthetic decision that doesn’t work.

There are many good defences of this film out there. I suggest you find one and read one as a companion to this slab of vitriol, because while the film itself is a monumental failure, the issues it attempts to deal with are complex and fascinating, and some reviewers were able to find genuine insight in the mire. Maybe the graphic novel was way more effective (though I doubt it). I have seen five Cronenbergs (incidentally his most recent five): Spider was splendid, eXistenZ okay, M. Butterfly a disappointment given the source material, Crash poor, and this equally poor. I’m told his early work is essential, so I’ll have a look there before passing judgment. Hopefully his next project is a return to form, but with the praise for A History of Violence deafening, he’ll probably continue along the same path. Someone who knows more of the guy, have a go at me.

Caché (2005) (E)

English title: ‘Hidden’
IMDb / Ebert / Cale / Calder / Crawford
Written and Directed by Michael Haneke

I’m not really one for Bazin, Truffaut et al’s so-called auteur theory – it’s my opinion that most films are very much collaborative efforts that no one person can take all credit for – but if there’s one director alive who fits it, it’s Michael Haneke. The two films of his that I’ve seen, La Pianiste (The Piano Teacher) and now Caché, offer director-as-star filmmaking in its purest, most fascinating form. His films are cold, clinical, detached, and disquieting, all in a good way. Like Gaspar Noé, he actively intends to manipulate the audience, but unlike that director he eschews visual trickery. He draws your emotions out slowly, then pulls them wherever he wants, and after the film is over leaves you to wrestle with them on your own.

After Caché, I thought of calling his directorial style ‘minimalist’, but that wouldn’t be true. The camera is often static, and when it moves it’s usually slowly and carefully; the sound design is simply functional, using only incidental sound with no music or effects. However, what happens within the frame is intricately choreographed, particularly in many long-range shots – you get the feeling that every shot (even when it only contains one or two people) has more going on than you could possibly take in, either at a physical or metaphysical level. In other words, it’s the content, not the process of filming it, that provides incredible depth and mindblowing detail. In this respect he is very much an actor’s director, but upon reflection, his restrained, cold technical style is impressive and suits the material well.

And what material. As in La Pianiste, Caché is concerned with real-life situations, scenes that you can easily imagine being played out in the real world. Every person who moves across the screen gives the impression of a life being lived, which is a testament to the actors but also to Haneke’s writing – get your central figures totally believable, and it’s that much easier to trust the rest of the film’s universe. On the face of it, Caché is a standard-issue thriller: the Laurents (father Georges, mother Anne, son Pierrot) receive a series of videotapes which contain footage pertaining to their lives – two hours at a time of the action outside their front door, Georges’ childhood home, a seemingly unfamiliar suburban street corner. They are often accompanied by disturbing, childlike drawings. However, traditional thriller elements rarely surface, and are replaced by an exploration of familial trust, honesty and guilt – the stuff that many of us deal with in our daily lives.

Watching the interactions between husband and wife, father and son, mother and son is as difficult as anything in the film, because they seem real people talking about real problems. I’ll go ahead and get it out of the way: Daniel Auteuil and Juliette Binoche, luminaries of French cinema, are near definitive of the profession in their performances, but they are almost upstaged by Lester Makedonsky, who plays their son. If you can understand any French, pay close attention to the way characters speak in this film, especially in the family: words are mumbled and missed in the way that only people very familiar are capable of doing. It is almost voyeuristic, which is no surprise given Haneke’s earlier films. The scenes between Auteuil and Binoche are charged with massive amounts of suppressed resentment, anger, and resignation, and are an education in screen acting. For me, though, the kid Makedonsky’s line delivery and reactions are note-perfect every single time he appears – it’s a remarkable child performance that is so good it deserves academic study.

Back to Haneke. As the film progresses, subtle aesthetic choices are made to mix things up and unsettle. For example, a particularly significant hallway is shot the same way three times, but the fourth time it is shot from the opposite angle. I don’t really know what to say about things like this, other than that they blow my mind when I think about them – how did he come up with such a simple and effective way of chilling me right to my bones? And if you haven’t deduced as much from the censor’s classification, there are disturbing images (one in particular) that are so shocking as to be burned into your memory forever. It’s the familiar images (of which there are many) that haunt the most, though, because of the different action that takes place within them each time we see them.

There’s so much artifice on display here, but so little artificiality. Haneke manipulates, questions and even threatens you, but he does it without striking any jarringly out-of-place notes. Caché will eat at me as my brain remembers and uncovers more, until I see it again, which I undoubtedly will (one viewing is not nearly enough to come to a coherent understanding of a film like this). I suspected beforehand that it might be the best film of the year, and so it was proved. It’s only April, but I’d be surprised if I see anything in cinemas better than this in 2006.

Dawn of the Dead (2004) (R)

IMDb / Ebert / Cale
Based on the 1978 screenplay by George A. Romero
Written by James Gunn
Directed by Zack Snyder

The horror genre is in a boom at the moment. I’m not talking about that tame brand of horror that emerged in the 90s (Scream, I Know What You Did Last Summer) and that has continued into this decade (When a Stranger Calls, Cry_Wolf), but the horror that harks back to the 70s and early 80s heyday. Films like Wolf Creek, Hostel, The Descent, and 28 Days Later…. Films with that scare you with their content, proper blood and shocks, and don’t resort to shitty, overused film techniques like loud noises and whip-pans. Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead remake seemed like a bad idea – the original is such a seminal entry in the genre – but remarkably, his film is actually worthy of the title.

Because this is a zombie movie, and we were drinking, half of the time we were paying more attention to our own theories for survival in a post-zombification world. Me, I’d probably get in line behind the characters in this film (and the original, which by the way I haven’t seen): get to a shopping mall and secure it. You’ve got everything you need for months of survival. If nobody comes to save you, at least you will have lived like a king for a while. You’d need to be in a group of 10 people or so – bigger and you risk infighting, smaller and you’re too easy to pick off.

But I digress. Maybe the best thing about this impressive film is the lengthy pre-credits sequence. Ana (Sarah Polley), a nurse, leaves work just as more and more bite wound patients are coming in, but she remains unaware of the impending doom. In her Edward Scissorhands neighbourhood, everything seems okay, but the direction suggests something sinister is going on – why do we linger on a shot of the girl rollerblading away? When Ana wakes up the next morning, we learn why: there’s the girl, in Ana’s house, a voracious zombie with a thirst for her partner’s flesh. That Ana loses her partner so early shows how ballsy and ruthless the film is, and that tone continues as she meets with a motley crew and holes up in that enormous mall.

The thing is, amongst all the heads exploding, chainsaws through shoulders and wickets through skulls, there is a sense of humour. The choice of music is fantastic: Johnny Cash’s The Man Comes Around plays over the opening credits, and Richard Cheese’s cover of Disturbed’s Down With The Sickness plays at about halfway in. Apparently these were Snyder’s choices that the studio disagreed with, but he insisted – it’s just as well. Then there are scenes like the one where they spot zombified celebrities to take out, like Jay Leno and Rosie O’Donnell, or the long-range game of chess the cop has with the weapons expert on top of a neighbouring building. It flicks between humour and horror effectively enough so that we can laugh and then be scared, unsettled for a moment before forgetting about it. It’s probably one of the most audience-friendly films I know of, existing purely to entertain, and it does it well. For boys, anyway.

The script is the source of any problems. Looking at Gunn’s filmography, he seems to be a bit of a hack, and there is little innovation in the story and characters, plus the film kind of runs out of steam towards the end. But the actors do all they need to, and Snyder’s direction is extremely impressive, especially for a debut. His work here suggests a big future. If you’re at all interested in horror this is a must-see – it’s so much fun, and respects its predecessor(s) but creates its own impressive effect. Make sure to keep watching during the closing credits for possibly the biggest shock of the film.