Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Film Week

A review of the films I've seen this past week.

WALT & EL GRUPO (2008)
Wonderful documentary about Walt Disney's Goodwill Tour to South America, taken at a time when his studio was on strike and the US government was trying to combat the growing Nazi influence in Brazil, Argentina and Chile. Disney's visit causes such a stir, and it's interesting to hear about the reaction and what Walt was like while visiting from people who were there and have never forgotten it. There are letters and photos and films; it's a wealth of information about the trip. One of the interesting details about the documentary is some of the reaction to the film that emerged from the trip, Saludos Amigos. It's not one of the studio's best, and except for the "Aquarela do Brasil" sequence, it's not a particularly vibrant or memorable film. I know this is the consensus among Disney historians, but it was interesting to see people from Chile and Argentina who felt that the film shortchanged their nations. Some of the most beautiful sketches and paintings we see from the trip by people like Frank Thomas or Lee and Mary Blair completely outshine what Saludos Amigos attempts (partially because people who didn't go on the trip were put in charge of the movie). Essential Disney history. **** stars.

The lives of Richard and Robert Sherman, Disney house songwriters in the 1960s (along with a lot of other great songs and musicals over the years). It doesn't gloss over the fact that the two brothers--who are really great talents that wrote a lot of songs we're all growing up on these past couple of generations--really don't get along and, by the time this documentary was made, were more or less estranged. Their sons made the film in the hopes of getting them back together. It's a great look at Disney history, family history, and how these two men blended their emotional outlooks perfectly in song, but not as well in real life. ***1/2 stars.

Great documentary about Disney animation between 1984 and 1994, directed and narrated by veteran Disney producer Don Hahn. This is a period of time when the company was in upheaval, Michael Eisner and Frank Wells came aboard, Jeffrey Katzenberg was put in charge of the animation department (which was unceremoniously moved to Glendale), and the Disney Renaissance occurred. It's also a period of time which is only just being documented more definitively (the book DisneyWar did a great job of it), but this is a warts-and-all insider's look that is incredibly valuable as animation history (and quite entertaining). **** stars.

There's a moment in this movie when the Greek warriors, arming themselves for a journey to the Stygian witches, pull out Bubo, the mechanical owl from the original, far superior Clash of the Titans. "What's this?" Perseus asks. "Leave it" one of the warriors commands. And that's pretty much this entire pointless remake in a nutshell: fuck the charm and wonder of the original, we're cool. This is yet another dull actioner from the school of filmmaking that says it's better to be cool and faux-serious than to be fun and enjoyable. It does its best to get in and rework almost everything from the original movie (some of it dismissive, like the example above or the appearance of a herd of winged horses that are immediately shown as inferior to the big, black charger that appears with wings, because, you know, this movie is way too cool for such a pussy pegasus as a white one). As a result, nothing is original (except for the Djinn, which is probably why they feel more interesting than every other creature), and everything is predictable. Some of the special effects are decent, and I enjoyed Gemma Arterton as Io, but who cares? It's just there and then it's gone. There's some fun to be had at the expense of the awful costumes, the near-total lack of characterization, the limited acting skills of Sam Worthington as Perseus (he's basically a bag of meat put there to do cool stuff emotionlessly), and Ralph Fiennes playing Hades as if he's recovering from a massive stroke. But really, who cares? In another month, I'll have forgotten it entirely, whereas the charm of the original is something I've never forgotten. I guess it helped that the original was entertaining, and in the post-Matrix cinescape we're actually supposed to take these silly quests seriously. * star.

This movie tries too damn hard to make you believe it's based on a true story. In fact, it tries so hard to sell its marketing gimmick that the film itself is secondhand and, frankly, unwatchable. No stars.

If it weren't for that ending... Fashion designer Tom Ford has a great sense of aesthetic, but not a great grasp of story. Here we have Colin Firth in one of his best performances (which is really saying something) as a gay man in the early 1960s who has lost the love of his life (Matthew Goode in flashbacks). Tragically, it's not enough that the man he loved and shared his life with was taken away in a car wreck, but the family didn't even think to inform him until days later and explicitly forbids his presence at the funeral. There are two dogs lost in the crash--one dead, the other missing and never to be found. His whole life has fallen out from under him. We join Firth's character on the last day of his life; he goes to work, he spends time with people, and all the while he is planning to kill himself (this is revealed very early), quietly putting his affairs in order. The film is beautiful to look at; it's so well shot and designed, and I love the color scheme Ford uses, which is to paint Firth in depressed grays and then to turn up the brightness when he's really engaged, really experiencing things that make his outlook, quite literally, brighter. It's an engrossing film... so engrossing that the pointlessly ironic ending comes off as a cruel gut punch to the viewer. It's not a film I can dismiss--I loved the journey--but it is marred by an ending that just doesn't work in any way except to hurt the audience, and I'm disappointed by that. ***1/2 stars.

I can say a lot of dismissive things about this movie, to be honest. It's trash masquerading as high art. It's over the top. It's faux-Argento. It's The Wrestler, but with ballerinas. The symbolism at play is so obvious that it feels like there was a fire sale at a store for high school creative writing students. And it's all true. But none of it negates that I was completely caught up in this movie from beginning to end. It's at times delicate--no, brittle--and at times gut-wrenching. Natalie Portman--who is, let's be honest here, a very hit or miss actress--is the best she's ever been as a sensitive, skittish, frail ballerina with real talent and an overbearing mother. She wants the role of the Swan Queen in her company's new production of Swan Lake. She can dance the White Swan perfectly, but her director (Vincent Cassell, excellent) thinks she's too controlled and inhibited to dance the Black Swan. She falls into a rivalry--some of it real, some of it imagined, much of it delusional--with another dancer, played by Mila Kunis, who is imprecise but passionate and seductive. All of this is surprisingly tense, in large part because of Natalie Portman's very physical performance. She is frail, and she's thinner than I've ever seen her. It makes her seem more vulnerable and nervous. She never stops moving; even just breathing seems like it winds her. She's putting everything into her performance, as is her character--she creates a portrait of a woman whose entire soul, entire existence is on the line for this one production, and it pays off in the end. It's an audacious movie, riveting in every way, and very powerful. I called it cliched and trashy, and it is, but the emotional reactions it creates are genuine. **** stars.

Decent remake of movie I've more or less completely forgotten (maybe an 80s Revisited is in order). Shannon Elizabeth, Diora Baird, Monica Keena and some other chick run around, lez it up, party hard, and get menaced by demons. Not much to it, but it is a lot of fun. Lots of gore, some nudity, and a funny cameo by Linnea Quigley make it a decent flick on a Saturday night. Also, what is Edward Furlong's deal? Lots of booze or lots of meals? *** stars.

It's not that I mind filmmakers asking the same questions over and over about the nature of reality, it's that I'm too often bored by their answers. Unwatchable. No stars.

GIALLO (2009)
Dario Argento's worst film. In fact, it's the only film of his I've ever not liked. I'm not sure what it is that doesn't work, but it feels more like a self-conscious attempt to emulate Dario Argento than an actual Argento movie. ** stars.

Beautiful. I really loved it. Sofia Coppola is still dealing in disaffection, but in a very artistic way. The film's about Johnny Marco, a movie star (played by Stephen Dorff). He's at the height of his fame, but he's also hiding from the world. Not in a self-conscious way; he's just detached from experience, in a cocoon of his own making, not a part of the world or even of his own life. He just sort of exists, working, occasionally taking care of a daughter (played wonderfully by Elle Fanning) from a previous marriage, not really connected to anything or anyone. What's so brilliant about Coppola's direction is that she manages to refrain from commenting on Johnny or on his life. She invites us to simply observe Johnny as he watches strippers dance for him, or falls asleep during foreplay, or eat breakfast with his daughter, or sit by the pool with her while saying nothing. We just see a picture of his life for what it is, until he realizes, through spending more time with his daughter than usual, that he's completely empty. In fact, he's so empty that he's not even sure what it is that's missing in his life, he just knows he's going around in circles and that it's worn him out. It's an excellent film, and as usual, Sofia Coppola isn't afraid to raise these complex emotional issues without giving them a neat little label and a falsely fulfilling ending. She's made four pictures now, each of them excellent, and each of them ending on the right note, not of closure, but of that moment when understanding and, possibly, change is within our grasp. Beautiful. Also, more Elle Fanning in movies like this, please. She's a much more natural actress than her sister (it's all in her expressive eyes). **** stars.

YOU AGAIN (2010)
The problem is, it's a screwball comedy, but the filmmakers want to make you feel, so it doesn't really work. Kristen Bell stars as a former high school object of bullying, now a successful businesswoman, who goes home for her brother's wedding only to discover that he's marrying her former bully (Odette Yustman). (By the way, I found it completely beyond the realm of believability that those two--the cheerleading captain and the star basketball player in a small, Northern California town--never met each other until a few months ago. Please.) To further complicate matters, she won't even acknowledge the past, and the entire family loves her. Predictability ensues, along with the addition of Sigourney Weaver (one of the few here who seems to understand the tone) as Yustman's aunt, who just happens to be the former rival of Bell's mother (Jamie Lee Curtis). Betty White is thrown in just to get this thing past max capacity. Seriously, could've been great screwball stuff, but they really want you to care and cry and have realizations and understandings, and it just... who cares? Good cast thoroughly wasted. Also, the whole thing would've ended in minutes if the people in the movie listened a little better. ** stars.

This movie surprised me. James Gandolfini stars as Douglas Riley, an Indianapolis businessman whose marriage is hanging by a thread. He and his wife Lois (Melissa Leo) have lost their teenage daughter in a car accident. Douglas has been having an affair for four years; Lois accepts it, having become afraid to leave the house. While on a conference in New Orleans, Douglas meets Allison (Kristen Stewart), a teenage runaway working as a stripper. Through a series of complications, he finds himself at her house. He doesn't want to have sex with her. Instead, he inserts himself into her life, trying to care for her and teach her to take care of herself as if she were a surrogate daughter. At first, she seems to welcome the help. Allison becomes worried when she thinks he's angry with her. They grow closer, and when Lois arrives, confronting her fear of the outside world in order to find her husband, Allison grows close with her, too. For a brief moment, they almost create a new family. But even as we're reminded of EM Forster's advice--"Only connect!"--we are also reminded of the adage that you cannot save someone, you can only love them. And the movie ends in a way I found realistic and surprisingly touching. It's a film of very quiet beauty and deep understanding, surprisingly observational of human nature even as its plot sounds contrived. All of the leads are very good, but I think Kristen Stewart outdoes everything she's ever done before (even her performance in The Runaways, which I'm a huge fan of). Frankly, when I'm not asked to buy her as a romantic lead, I think Kristen Stewart is a very good actress. I don't know why she can't connect in that manner, but I have a really good theory... **** stars.

This now stands in my personal cinema history as the only Woody Allen movie I've not been able to finish watching. I'm a forgiving fan, yes, but there's only so much you can forgive, and this movie is just awful. No stars. Worse than Celebrity.


RJ said...

I HAVE seen You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger all the way through, and the movie doesn't even have an ending so I can safely say you didn't miss anything.

Did you see Mother of Tears, by the way? That was a pretty bad Argento movie, but in a completely horrible, trainwrecky kind of way that was fun? to watch.

Dr. Monkey Von Monkerstein said...

Yeah, I really REALLY hated The Fountain too.

Roger Owen Green said...

I really liked A Single Man, but the ending WAS harsh.

Tallulah Morehead said...

Clearly you haven't read Christopher Isherwood's great novel A SINGLE MAN, of which the movie is an extremely faithful adaptation. That is EXACTLY how the book ends. Isherwood's final page description of his main character's body shutting down (and why it happens), is one of the most-unforgettable pages of prose I have ever read. I recommend reading the book. At the very least, read the last two pages. Great book.

SamuraiFrog said...

RJ: I still haven't seen Mother of Tears, but I've heard nothing good about it. I still want to see it, because I love Argento, both father and daughter, but I haven't made it a priority because of the terrible reviews.

Dr. Monkey: I'm surprised how much I've liked Darren Aronofsky's last couple of movies, because I despised the first few.

Roger: It was just kind of a narrow ending.

Tallulah: I wouldn't call it an extremely faithful adaptation, to be honest. I think Tom Ford used it as a base for something very autobiographical, which is fine. But the ending of the film doesn't work because of the introduction of the gun. It makes George suicidal in an attempt to add dramatic tension, but it narrows the focus and makes that ending equally narrow. That ending doesn't work anymore; it cheapens the experience when you've introduced the gun, then had George decide he wants to live, and then dies anyway, which isn't tragic, it's just cruel.

In the book, there was no suicidal feeling. The book--and it is great, I read it in college, alongside The Berlin Stories--is like an extended inner monologue about a man who can't escape his obsession with the past. Tom Ford's approach is more mundane than Isherwood's, and while it doesn't make for a bad movie, it does make the ending damaging to the suspense he's built up. It comes across as a miscalculation--a cheap movie ending--in Ford's version.

Perhaps it's because Isherwood's version was more alive, more angry, more thoughtful, and his original ending comes across to me as a sort of transcendence of mere humanity (though a sad one) after his sort of baptism in the surf. Ford's version is compelling until the last third, where it becomes "A cute boy flirted with me, now I want to live--bang, fuck, I'm dead, how ironic!"

Tallulah Morehead said...

Well I certainly agree that the Isherwood book is a masterpiece, superior to the film, but I liked the film very much.

SamuraiFrog said...

I really did, too, and I think that's probably why I took the ending so hard.