Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Week of August 4th:

Mean Frank and Crazy Tony (1973): The 'and' in the title is more important than you'd expect, since this Italian crime flick is really two films grafted onto each other. The first film is a wacky caper comedy about small-time dreamer Tony, played with a notable lack of subtlety by Tony Lo Bianco, and his attempts to ingratiate himself with imprisoned hardass capo Frank, played by Lee Van Cleef. The second film is a gritty action drama about steel-spined Frank and his inexorable progress towards settling a score with French rival Jean Rochefort. Combining the two makes for a strangely schizo buddy movie, with the more serious aspects of the film proving significantly more compelling than the farcical elements; fortunately, the slapstick wanes the deeper we get into the plot, and the film ultimately emerges as a flawed but reasonably entertaining genre entry. Also, Edwige Fenech is here as Lo Bianco's long-suffering girlfriend; she's given almost nothing to do in the story, but she does hang around long enough to provide her contractually-obligated nude scene, so that's a plus. Grade: B-

Ninotchka (1939): Legendary director Ernst Lubitsch filmed this sparkling culture-clash romantic comedy while riding out a delay in the start of production on The Shop Around the Corner. That means that he tossed off one masterpiece while waiting to make another. Did this guy just will masterpieces into being or something? Would that all romantic comedies could feature chemistry as electric as that between Melvyn Douglas and Greta Garbo or comic relief as consistently amusing as the three stoogeniks who set the plot in motion when they become seduced by the allure of Western decadence. A fleet and nimble film, hugely enjoyable; the scene where the film earns its famed tagline ("Garbo Laughs!") trumps the entirety of most other films all on its own. Grade: A

Pineapple Express (2008): Slight, intermittently amusing stoner action flick is probably more valuable for its position in its creators' respective canons than it is as a standalone object. It's a melding of two kinds of humanism -- Judd Apatow's shaggy lovable-loser humanism and David Gordon Green's intentionally awkward poetic emo-humanism -- and the intersections and richochets between the two parallel yet different viewpoints is more interesting than the shrug of a plot. For Green watchers, this is valuable (more valuable than Undertow, anyway) as a demonstration that he can work within Hollywood constraints and genre frameworks without losing his very particular sense of the world. (The brief bit with Seth Rogen and James Franco blazed out of their skulls and playing leapfrog in the woods is as lovely and charming as anything in any studio offering this decade.) And for Apatow auteurists, this is twofold: It's proof that his way of thinking can come on strong and even exist symbiotically with another's distinctive outlook, meaning he doesn't necessarily have to hire the bland TV hacks with whom he's surrrounded himself, and it shows that his cockeyed idea of shlubby semi-realism, his can ground even the most ridiculous of premises. Now if only this thing were funnier, we might have something spectacular. Seth Rogen's screenplay, though, crosses the line at some point from being about slackers to merely being slack, leading to scenes that should work better than they do (i.e. the faux-gay escape attempt). Franco and Craig Robinson are the most consistently funny elements of the film; also, the car chase is some kind of loopy genius. Grade: B-

The Signal (2008): Low-budget triptych of linked tales centered around a mysterious frequency that drives people murderously nutty is passable in its begining and ending thirds, which tell the tale of an adulterous couple's dangerous attempt at a flight to safety from the vantage point of each of the involved parties, with the third segment holding together better than the first if only because Dan Bush seems a stronger director than David Bruckner and Justin Welborn's strong-jawed suitor makes for a more interesting protagonist than Anessa Ramsey's drippy adulteress. The second segment, though, is another beast. Directed by Jacob Gentry, it features Ramsey's cuckolded husband falling in with two neighbors trying to keep up appearances as they incongruousy prepare for a New Year's party, and it's marvelous -- a nervy high-wire black comedy that sees the imminent collapse of everything not as an excuse for angst but as a ghoulish chuckle of nihilism. It's a really rather bracing blast of quién-es-más-loco gallows humor, and it makes the film worth seeing all by itself while simultaneously pointing out how uninspired the other two segments are in comparison. This Gentry kid could really go places. Grade: B


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