Tag Archives: Steve Buscemi

CAPSULE: BIG FISH (2003)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Albert Finney, , , , , , Robert Guillaume, , , Loudon Wainwright III,

PLOT: William Bloom (Crudup) returns to his Alabama hometown when he receives news that his father, Edward (Finney), is dying. William has never gotten along with his dad, a spinner of tale tales, but is it possible that any of his stories are true?

Still from Big Fish (2003)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: This is Tim Burton for people who don’t like Tim Burton. It’s classic Oscar bait: a sentimental story of a dysfunctional father-son relationship with the Burtonesque elements—werewolves, witches, conjoined twins—coming in on the margins. As it is, the film is quite enjoyable, but not one of Burton’s best and definitely not one of his strangest—so it’s definitely not weird enough for the List.

COMMENTS: : Big Fish is Tim Burton lite, which doesn’t mean it’s not entertaining. On the surface this is a story of father-son reconciliation, and since Burton had lost both of his parents in the few years before Big Fish, the story must have had extra resonance for him. But this is still a Tim Burton film, with moving trees , a giant and mermaids, among other contrivances, and it definitely dips into any number of fantastical realms. Ewan McGregor and Albert Finney play Edward at 30ish and 65ish, respectively, and Alison Lohman (whatever happened to her?) and Jessica Lange are the younger and older versions of Edward’s wife, Sandra. All four are convincing, as is Crudup in the thankless role of Edward’s perpetually grouchy son, Will. However, future Oscar winner Marion Cotillard makes little impression as William’s wife. Philippe Rousellot’s cinematography is digitally manipulated, which would be a hallmark of almost every Burton film after this, and everything looks so beautiful that it’s not difficult to be sincerely moved by this film’s third act—the first time that Burton attempted to tug the heartstrings since Edward Scissorhands. He certainly hasn’t tried anything similar since. Of course, this is exactly the kind of manipulation that had naysayers complaining that Burton had sold out, and that Big Fish  was too bland and impersonal. Manipulative it may be, but the film feels far more Burton-esque than the lamentable Planet of the Apes or the the dispiriting Alice in Wonderland. Big Fish may be the rare Burton film that can please both his acolytes and detractors equally.

Sharp-eyed viewers will note a very young Miley Cyrus as a little girl in a Brigadoon-like town that Edward visits, and sharp-eared listeners will notice that, except for Cyrus, there isn’t one authentic Southern accent in this Alabama-set tale. Lange still sounds like she’s doing Blanche Dubois. It all adds to the (intentional?) unreality of this charming tall tale.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“There are quirks aplenty in Big Fish, but spirited performances from a talented cast, led by a standout Finney as the slippery-fish raconteur, help domesticate the wall-to-wall weirdness.”–Megan Lehmann, The New York Post (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by “Nick.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: BLANK CITY (2010)

DIRECTED BY: Celine Danhier

FEATURING: Amos Poe, Jim Jarmusch, Steve Buscemi, Lydia Lunch, Nick Zedd, Richard Kern, ,

PLOT: This documentary examines the “No Wave” and “Cinema of Transgression” film

Still from Blank City (2010)

movements and their connections to performance art and punk rock in New York City circa 1977-1985.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s purely a supplemental feature for your weird movie education, giving background information on a significant underground DIY film movement.

COMMENTS: “It felt like our lives were movies,” says Debbie Harry early on in Blank City. “It was very cinematic.” Perhaps this explains Celine Danhier’s choice, which earned her criticism in some quarters, to place the focus more on the filmmakers than the films in this documentary. Based on the No Wave film clips which illustrate the story, this was the correct angle to take on the material. Most of the “greatest hits” Super-8 highlights consist of grungy hipsters smoking cigarettes in grainy black and white, or walking around dirty East Village streets in washed-out, home-movie color. By contrast, the Bohemian lifestyle the filmmakers fondly recall—sharing $50 apartments in burnt out tenements with cockroaches, shooting on the street on the spur of the moment whenever they could assemble a crew, sneaking into locations to film without permission or permits, and heading off to CBGB’s after a hard day of scraping together footage to drink and dance the night away while a pre-fame Blondie or Television played on stage—is a lot more interesting. The No Wave scene flourished during New York City’s downbeat phase, when the burg was deep in debt, full of abandoned buildings, and riddled by crime and heroin abuse (basically, the New York of Midnight Cowboy and Taxi Driver). The city in the late Seventies was nasty and dangerous, but for nouveau-beatnik types it offered cheap rent, cheaper Super-8 film stock, and the company of like-minded free spirits. Although it grew out of the ashes of the previous New York avant-garde exemplified by and Jack (Flaming Creatures) Smith, movement godfather Amos Poe explains that this wave rebelled against the Continue reading CAPSULE: BLANK CITY (2010)

CAPSULE: SAINT JOHN OF LAS VEGAS (2009)

DIRECTED BY:  Hue Rhodes

FEATURING: Steve Buscemi, Romany Malco, Sarah Silverman,

PLOT: An insurance fraud investigator with a secret gambling addiction is assigned to investigate a wheelchair-bound stripper’s accident claim in Las Vegas.

Still from Saint John of Las Vegas (2009)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LISTSaint John lands the dreaded double whammy: it’s not very weird, and not that good.

COMMENTS:  In blackjack, a player sometimes gets a decent hand but pushes his luck, takes another hit and end up going bust.  Saint John of Las Vegas starts with good cards: quirky indie icon Steve Buscemi, a plot hook about fate leading a problem gambler to the worst place in the world for him, and good supporting performances by Sarah Silverman as the new girlfriend whose sunniness and clinginess besmirch her sexiness and Peter Dinklage as the smarmy, fast-talking boss.  There are a couple of nearly brilliant, ironically absurd individual ideas: a wheelchair lapdance and a carnival sideshow attraction trapped in a malfunctioning flame suit.  But every good scene is undone by at least two corresponding clunkers: sleepyheads un-comically freaking out when awakened by the glare from a nearby glass building, a sequence involving a clique of nude men in the desert that works too hard for its single joke, a slowly revealed recurring dream that explains nothing, and a nonsensical, bungled twist ending that explains even less.  Apprentice fraud investigator Buscemi hits the road with vet adjuster Malco, an unflappable, cocky black dude whose too-cool-for-school glare gets him past strip club bouncers without paying the cover.  The mismatched pair never develop a chemistry to drive the movie; though he’s just doing what the script tells him to, Malco remains more of a constant annoyance than a worthy antagonist for Buscemi.   The final card that makes the movie go bust, however, is the half-hearted attempt to base the story on Dante’s “Inferno.”  English majors’ ears will perk up when they hear that Buscemi’s guide to the City of Sin is named Virgil, but anyone hoping to pick out correspondences to the epic poem will be frustrated, and anyone not familiar with Dante will be confused by the digressions.  The script stretches for circles.  Lust works, but where’s gluttony, who are the naked guys supposed to represent, and is there a new mortal sin—nicotine addiction—sandwiched somewhere in between wrath and heresy?  Writer/director Rhodes prominently gives Dante Alighieri a “based on a story by” credit, which is borderline unethical; the guy’s been dead for almost 700 years, so he’s not likely to have his agent call to get his name taken off the credits.  Still, with all its script problems and its chronic lack of laughs, Buscemi’s shaggy charisma keeps the project from being a total waste.  The rat-faced actor was born to play strung-out losers seeking redemption; a middle-aged desk-slave addicted to scratch off lottery cards is a role he can’t completely whiff on.

First time feature writer/director Hue Rhodes, who made a mid-life career change from software engineer to filmmaker, obviously charmed a lot of people into believing in him.   Not only did he lure Buscemi on board, but Spike Lee and Stanley Tucci show up in the credits as executive producers.  Their confidence wasn’t completely misplaced, as Rhodes does prove competent: although Saint John‘s parts don’t fit together into a bigger picture, the individual pieces are technically polished, making for a salable trailer.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…Rhodes buries his would-be comic tale of desert losers in a welter of quirkiness and lousy surrealism, largely wasting an alluring cast brimming with humorous potential.”–David Noh, Film Journal International (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: PARIS, JE T’AIME (2006)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Christopher Doyle, Oliver Schmitz, The Coen Brothers, , Wes Craven, , and others

FEATURING: Steve Buscemi, Miranda Richardson, Juliette Binoche, Willem Dafoe, , , Seydou Boro, Aïssa Maïga, , Elijah Wood, Olga Kurlyenko, Gena Rowlands, Ben Gazarra, Gérard Depardieu, Li Xin, and many, many more

PLOT: Eighteen short films (averaging about six minutes each), each set in a different Paris neighborhood and each focusing loosely on the theme of amour.

Still from Paris Je T'aime (Christopher Doyle's "Porte de Choisy" segment) (2006)

 

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Of the eighteen shorts, only Christopher Doyle’s offering is actually weird (although a few others have some mildly weird elements).
COMMENTS: Like any anthology film, Paris, Je T’aime is a box of chocolates, with some bittersweet bon-bons, a few of the dreaded coconuts, and one oddly shaped piece with a taste you can’t quite place.  Putting the most curious confection aside for last, there are a few novel flavors in this box of sweets.  The Coen brothers serve up an absurdly paranoid—and laugh-out-loud funny—sketch.  A bemused and horrified Steve Buscemi stars as an American tourist who unwisely forgets his guidebook’s advice not to look Parisians in the eye in the subway, with strange, unfortunate, and hilarious results.  Impossible teleportations and lusty Gallic vindictiveness remove this one from the realm of reality.  Climbing a rung down the weirdness ladder brings us to Vincent (Cube) Natali’s offering, a stylized, silent eroto-vampire number starring Elijah Wood and luminous Bond girl Olga Kurlyenko; shot in faux black-and-white with hyperreal pools of red blood, it’s a mood piece tapping elegant cinematic myths.  Further down, Juliette Binoche is a grieving mother who dreams of cowboys in “Place des Victories”; and Sylvian (The Triplets of Bellville) Chomet brings us a slapstick story of love among mimes that won’t change your view of those despicable creatures, but offers respite from the reality of the surrounding tales.

The most memorable segment of all, it should be mentioned, isn’t one bit weird: Oliver Schmitz’ “Places des Fêtes” is the account of an injured Nigerian immigrant who wants to share a cup of coffee with the cute paramedic who comes to his aid.  His story is told in flashback, and the piece ends on a quiet but shattering image.  Compressing a lifetime’s heartbreak into five minutes of film is an amazing achievement.

The one fully weird sequence comes courtesy of respected cinematographer Christopher Continue reading CAPSULE: PARIS, JE T’AIME (2006)

51. BARTON FINK (1991)

“And the king, Nebuchadnezzar, answered and said to the Chaldeans, I recall not my dream; if ye will not make known to me my dream, and its interpretation, ye shall be cut in pieces, and of your tents shall be made a dunghill.”–Daniel 2:5, the passage Barton reads when he opens his Gideon’s Bible (Note that the Coen’s actually depict it as verse 30, alter the wording slightly, and misspell “Nebuchadnezzar”).

“Writing is easy:  All you do is sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.”– Gene Fowler

Must See

DIRECTED BY: Joel Coen

FEATURING: , , Michael Lerner, Judy Davis, John Mahoney, Jon Polito, Steve Buscemi

PLOT: Barton Fink is a playwright whose first Broadway show, a play about the common man, is a smash success; his agent convinces him to sell while his stock is high and go to Hollywood to quickly make enough money to fund the rest of his writing career.  He arrives in Los Angeles, checks into the eerie art deco Hotel Earle, and is assigned to write a wrestling picture for Wallace Beery by the Capitol pictures studio head himself.  Suffering from writer’s block, Barton spends his days talking to the insurance salesman who lives in the room next door and seeking writing advice from alcoholic novelist W.P. Mayhew, until deadline day looms and very strange events begin to take center stage.

Still from Barton Fink (1991)

BACKGROUND:

  • At the time, it was widely reported that the Coen brothers wrote the script for Barton Fink while suffering from a mean case of writer’s block trying to complete the screenplay to their third feature film, Miller’s Crossing.  The Coens themselves have since said that this description is an exaggeration, saying merely that their writing progress on the script had slowed and they felt they needed to get some distance from Miller’s Crossing by working on something else for a while.
  • Barton Fink was the first and only film to win the Palme D’or, Best Director and Best Actor awards at the Cannes film festival; after this unprecedented success, Cannes initiated a rule that no film could win more than two awards.  Back home in the United States, Barton Fink was not even nominated for a Best Picture, Director or Actor Oscar. It did nab a Best Supporting Actor nom for Lerner.
  • The character of Barton Fink was inspired by real life playwright Clifford Odets.  W.P. Mayhew was based in part on William Faulkner.  Jack Lipnick shares many characteristics, including a common birthplace, with 1940s MGM mogul Louis B. Mayer.
  • Following a definite theme for the year, Judy Davis also played an author’s muse and lover in another surrealistic 1991 movie about a tortured writer, Naked Lunch.
  • According to the Coens, the final scene with the pelican diving into the ocean was not planned, but was a happy accident.
  • In interviews the Coens have steadfastly disavowed any intentional symbolic or allegorical reading of the final events of the film, saying”what isn’t crystal clear isn’t intended to become crystal clear, and it’s fine to leave it at that” and “the movie is intentionally ambiguous in ways they [critics] may not be used to seeing.”

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Barton Fink is full of mysterious images that speak beyond the frame.  The most popular and iconic picture is John Goodman wreathed in flame as the hallway of the Earle burns behind him.  Our pick would probably go to the final shot of the film, where a pelican suddenly and unexpectedly plummets into the ocean while a dazed Barton watches a girl on a beach assume the exact pose of a picture on his hotel wall.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: A nightmarish, expressionistic, and self-satirizing evocation of the difficulty of creation, Barton Fink pokes a sharpened stick into the deepest wounds of artistic self-doubt. A pure mood piece, its amazing ending achieves the remarkable triumph of leaving us with nothing but unanswered questions, while simultaneously feeling complete and whole.

COMMENTS: The most accurate word to describe Barton Fink is “enigmatic.”  It’s a work Continue reading 51. BARTON FINK (1991)