Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Film Week

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

THE HOMELESS FLEA (1940)
Another Rudolf Ising cartoon from MGM. Some decent gags, but I think I saw a lot of these on TV as a kid and they weren't particularly memorable. Even now, I don't remember most of this. I feel bad bagging on Rudy Ising, but his earlier work for Warner Bros was so much better. **1/2

LES PASSAGERS DE LA GRANDE OURSE (1941)
I've gone this far and I've never actually seen a film by French animator Paul Grimault. This is a marvelous short about a stowaway on an airship (La Grande Ourse) who runs afoul of a robot waiter and is menaced by a gigantic vulture. The animation is beautiful, very full, in a way that only few have achieved since (such as Richard Williams). The short is dreamlike and just pure cartoon. ****

A RAINY DAY (1940)
Hugh Harman directed this cartoon for MGM, about a bear trying to fix the roof of the house while a storm blows in. Interesting character animation, but it's concerns are technical proficiency rather than entertainment. **

TAKE THIS WALTZ (2012)
Sarah Polley's second directorial effort, this isn't as immediately accessible as Away from Her, but something more subtle and harder to define. Michelle Williams stars as a married woman who becomes taken with a man (Luke Kirby) who (it later turns out) lives across the street from her. She tries not to give in to the temptation of cheating on her husband (Seth Rogen), but becomes consumed with the idea that her life just isn't... right somehow. It's an interesting character study, made even more obtuse by my feeling that Williams' character has a real lack of self-awareness. It's unfortunate that she can't appreciate her marriage to a nice, warm, caring man; for as much as she wants to throw herself at her neighbor, she feels like she has to build up her courage just to seduce her own husband, but only seems to be able to do it at inopportune moments when she'll be rejected--meanwhile, in one scene, he attempts to kiss her on the mouth when they're both being playful, and she just stops him and then doesn't seem to understand why he feels rejected. It's like she needs the excitement of these new feelings for someone else in order to feel fulfilled. It's tragic. To throw it in relief, Sarah Silverman plays Rogen's sister, a recovering alcoholic who compares her own problems--needing to fill the gap inherent in life, even at the cost of personal destruction--to Williams'. It's not an easy movie; it's at times very frustrating, but it's also very honest without spelling out what you're supposed to take from it, and I feel more rewarded because the movie tries harder and is more genuine than something like Eat Pray Love. I hope Sarah Polley never stops writing and directing movies. ***1/2

THE GIRL (2009)
It's a pretty movie (the cinematographer, Hoyte Van Hoytema, also shot Let the Right One In), but one with few surprises. It's about a girl in 1980 whose family goes to Africa for a summer on some kind of humanitarian mission, leaving her in the care of an alcoholic aunt who is more interested in reliving her past. The girl (unnamed in the film) has her aunt whisked away by an old boyfriend and spends the summer fending for herself. It plays like a study in levels of wisdom--she's smart enough to fend for herself, but only for so long, as she doesn't really have the experience to take care of herself--but is fairly predictable and, maybe, a little too indulgent. **1/2

SPECIAL WHEN LIT (2010)
An easygoing documentary about pinball, its history, its ongoing cult popularity, and the people who are passionate about it. It's a charming film, and never looks down on pinball's devotees, but instead takes us into a world of people who are obsessed with a moment in pop culture history. ***

X-MEN: FIRST CLASS (2011)
As much as I didn't like X-Men Origins: Wolverine, I liked this movie even less. The movie versions of the X-Men have just never really made that much of an impression on me, and this was just treading familiar ground, though this was the most overwrought one yet. The film's attempts to make me care about anything that's happening were constantly setback by turgid direction, the director's inability to use subtlety where a stampede of obviousness will do, a total lack of wit, terrible makeup, shitty special effects, and a script that tries to examine the past friendship of Erik Lensherr (later Magneto) and Charles Xavier (later Professor X) but just makes Xavier look like an arrogant, highhanded jerk. Between the knee-bruising fan service and the director practically shouting "THIS IS BASED ON A COMIC BOOK! SEE? ANGLES!" in your ear, Michael Fassbender turns in a surprisingly great performance as Lensherr that made me wish they'd just jettisoned all the other characters (especially Raven Darkholme, whose complex personal transformation should be the heart of the film, but who is played with a near-total lack of emotion by Jennifer Lawrence, who might as well start every one of her lines with "Then the script says that I'm supposed to tell you..."). Also, the CGI/makeup of Nicholas Hoult's Beast is unintentionally hilarious; he looks like he's doing Teen Wolf cosplay. Also, January Jones is just awful. Also, two black characters and you make one of them turn evil and the other explode? Seriously? In 1962? In a movie based on a comic book whose characters were meant to be an allegory for racism? Also, also, also. I could go on all day. Anyway, Kevin Bacon's not bad in it, either, but this is just not good and doesn't make the serious emotional impact it clearly thinks it does. **

RED TAILS (2012)
After nearly a quarter-century, George Lucas finally made his movie about the Tuskegee Airmen. I know a lot of people criticized this movie for not being a serious historical drama, but I see the tone they were going for. George Lucas wanted to make the kind of movie they would have made in 1943, if black people were allowed to exist in movies in 1943 outside of the service industry. It's one of those wartime adventure flicks from the time period, Flying Leathernecks with African-Americans. And they get that tone, too, focusing on brave pilots whose abilities are in doubt and who seek the chance to prove themselves as fighter pilots--and there's also romance, daring, action, and Cuba Gooding Jr. channeling Robert Montgomery. But on the negative side, the attempt to replicate that comic strip tone of two-fisted heroism and doomed wartime love results in a movie that is so lacking in edges that it becomes inconsequential. It's fluff, and not the fun fluff I was hoping for. Which is a shame, because it wastes some pretty nice performances (I particularly liked David Oyelowo and Elijah Kelly, and was hoping to see more from Friday Night Lights star Michael B. Jordan) and has tremendously good special effects. I wish it had all been in the service of a movie that gave you a reason to care about them. You've got the style down, just give me some substance so I can enjoy this adventure. **1/2

WINTER'S BONE (2010)
What is the point of this goddamn thing? I mean, what is the takeaway here? Jennifer Lawrence stars (in an inexplicably Oscar-nominated performance in an inexplicably Oscar-nominated film) as a hillbilly in the Ozarks who has to prove her father's death in order to keep the house she, her younger siblings, and her catatonic mother live in. That's ostensibly the plot, and it tries to be this sort of noir detective flick in an unusual setting that's supposed to be gritty, but really it just operates like a comic book on cartoon logic. I keep hearing what a good actress Jennifer Lawrence is, but this really isn't the movie to prove it with, since her character is so incredibly one-dimensional and not really very bright. It's just all about taking this girl who is the one virtuous, flawless, overly-idealized angel in the Ozarks and shitting all over her. She's supposed to be trying to find her father, but she only goes through the motions--all the real detective work is done for her, often by people who are beating the shit out of her one minute and then randomly helping her for no real reason the next. But hey, she survives getting choked and beaten and spat on and having a tooth knocked out and having to cut the hands off of her daddy's corpse, so that apparently makes her some kind of hero. Or something. It's just a terrible, badly-written, badly-acted, pointless exploitation movie that doesn't even have the courage to be one, and instead pretends it has something important to say. The copious amount of praise heaped on this is just embarrassing. *

ALBATROSS (2011)
The film's grave miscalculation it's that its main character (a young English girl who wants to be a writer, played by Jessica Brown Findlay) is an asshole. She treats people like shit and thinks it's clever, and sadly the movie agrees with her, so when it comes time for us to have to view her sympathetically in the third act, it's just no longer possible. So, you know, stuff happens, but who cares? *

HARRY AND TONTO (1974)
Finally, a film about humanity. Not enough of that this week... Art Carney stars in a deservedly Oscar-winning performance as an old, retired widower whose apartment building in New York is torn down. His adult son takes him in, but he feels like a burden and sets out to visit his daughter in Chicago and his other son in Los Angeles, sort of discovering America and himself along the way. It's a beautiful character study. The aspect of the film that really touched me was Harry's loyalty to his cat, Tonto. Everything that happens to Harry happens because of his cat; he won't let Tonto be taken away at the airport, he won't get on the bus without Tonto. Tonto is his friend, and also the only part of his daily life that he still is able to hold on to: his wife has passed away, his apartment is torn down, his friends have died, and the neighborhood is in decline. With Tonto at his side, Harry decides to discover who he is now, making his way slowly westward and open to new experiences and new friendships, always able to make human connections with an open friendliness. Early in the film, Harry insists that his neighborhood is still home, telling his cat "I still know a lot of people around here. You know people... that's home." What I love about this film is that Harry is able to carry that attitude of neighborliness with him as he forges ahead to find a new place for himself in this world. Beautiful film. **** (There's a great scene with Chief Dan George. Even if a movie's bad, a Chief Dan George scene is worth the price of admission.)

1 comment:

Allen L. said...

Winter's Bone was interminably awful. I have NO idea why it received the accolades it did. But it was instrumental in my losing interest in film over the past year or so.
If THAT was what was getting praise, I must be sorely out of touch.

;)