Wednesday, September 05, 2012

Film Week

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

Pleasant DVD extra about the making of the MGM Tarzan films. I have it on the DVD set featuring the first six of the Weismuller Tarzan flicks (the ones with Maureen O'Sullivan), but didn't end up watching it until it showed up recently on TCM. Like I said, pleasant, and informative (I'm more curious about the original version of Tarzan Escapes, which is completely lost), and filled me with the urge to see the films again. I've seen these films criticized a lot in the past for kind of bastardizing Burroughs' originals into something much more Saturday matinee-ish, so it's nice that they focus on the fact that ERB sort of insisted on it. (They were adapting the character, not the novels themselves, which are tricky and difficult and not exactly cinematic.) Given the set it's meant to enhance, I understand why it focuses on only the first six of Weismuller's 12 Tarzan pictures, but it bizarrely insists that after the sixth when Maureen O'Sullivan left the series that was it. ***

Decent biopic of Yankees great Lou Gehrig, following him from childhood up to his retirement in the face of his illness. Its focus is mainly on celebrating (and enshrining) the legend of Lou Gehrig, American Hero, but it's a nice, well-made, good-looking movie. I don't always like Gary Cooper, but he's very good here. Better than solid, but not a great film. ***1/2

Gary Cooper again, this time as a stuffy language professor on a team of stuffy professors trying to create an encyclopedia. When Coop realizes he doesn't know a thing about modern slang and the way people use it, he tries to find someone who will come in so he can learn what it all means. That leads him to Barbara Stanwyck, a nightclub singer who needs a place to hide from the police who want to question her about her gangster boyfriend. The professors all grow enamored of her, having basically no experience with women. It's a broad comedy, but also very sharp and witty. The writers (Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder) modeled the plot on Snow White. Howard Hawks directed. And Gene Krupa appears. Fantastic movie, fun and hilarious. ****

A concert documentary about, well, Elvis Presley on tour. Something of a follow-up to That's the Way It Is, but with more scenes of Elvis performing, and interspersed a bit with an actual interview he gave the filmmakers. In 1972 Elvis still had charm, but you can see here how he's detached, sometimes to the point of hostility, from the whole experience of being Elvis, like it's just not interesting anymore. You can see, too, and almost involuntarily, how overly protective his handlers and entourage are, still defensive that someone else might get in and derail the money train. Some of his performances, like "Bridge Over Troubled Water," are interesting and emotional, but too often he's just defaulting to toothless arrangements of irrelevant old rockabilly hits from the fifties, and you start to wonder why anyone bothered going to see him anymore. He had long since been a brand churning out the same repeat performances night after night. I don't think the film intended to make me think about any of this, but that's what boosts it up from just a performance film. ***

This is a difficult movie. Remember a few years ago when that story came out about someone who worked at a McDonald's getting a phone call from a man claiming to be a cop who said a young, female employee had been accused of theft, then proceeded to have the employee strip searched, held hostage, and then raped? Well, this is based on that. It's sort of jaw-dropping because even as we tell ourselves that we'd never be fooled in such a situation, someone was. Lots of people were; there were at least 70 incidents. The film is something of an endurance test, forcing us to ask just how much we're willing to submit to just because someone claims authority. The person on the other end of the phone preys on the ignorance of those involved, speaks with confidence, gets people to make leaps and fill in blanks with the right prompting. He's alternately threatening and friendly, and manipulates this situation as far as it can go until someone finally stops it. Sometimes terrible things continue simply because everyone involved is too afraid to say no. Like I said, a difficult film, hard to watch. I'm glad I saw it but I don't think I could ever see it again. ***1/2

Serge Gainsbourg wrote and directed this film. Beautiful Joe Dallesandro plays a garbage collector who is gay, but apparently searching for a way to find happiness in a society that sees homosexuality as an abomination. To that end, he starts up a romance with lovely Jane Birkin, playing a waitress. With her short hair and boyish build, Dallesandro is attracted to her but unable to make love to her without pretending she's a boy and only having anal sex with her. But she wants a strong, masculine lover, and there's a question of whether they can either truly meet each others' needs. It's a deliberately crude, sometimes funny movie, well-made and surprisingly frank about its subject matter. Can these two people find a decent level of happiness in a place that is inwardly and outwardly ugly? An emotional picture. ****

HOUSE (1977)
Completely, utterly, bugfuck insane. I loved it. A Japanese schoolgirl takes six of her friends out to the country to stay with the aunt she's never met, and things go crazy. It's a horror movie, but it's as cartoonish and hilarious as it is gory and scary. I barely even know how to describe this. But I loved it. ****

The search for a serial killer in Texas. Stuff happens. Some set-ups and stuff. It never really drew me into it on an emotional level; I knew what was happening, I just didn't care why. Looks good, though. And it wasn't ever really boring. I just didn't care. Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Chloe Moretz were pretty good. **1/2

Moving story about Cyril, a 12 year-old kid abandoned by his father and uncertain where he fits in without him. He's aided in his search for his missing father by a hairdresser who looks after him on weekends (Cecile De France), but when he's ultimately rejected, he begins looking for something else to guide him, falling in with a local gang. A film about social realism, with a bright, airy sort of look to it (this is a great-looking film), it never deviates from the emotional journey of Cyril, but never overplays its hand and manipulates your feelings, either. Near-perfect. ****

The amazing Sharon Kelly is a pirate radio host, encouraging her teenage listeners to have sex. She's instructional, playing with herself and offering directions to her listeners, or even offering herself to a contest winner, all while trying to remain mobile as the cops and the FCC track her down. It's a fun, innocent skin flick, but Kelly elevates it, standing out from the other performers who are, let's just say, not up to handling things like dialogue. Genuinely sexy. ***

Interestingly-structured Godard film about Nana (Anna Karina), a woman who has left her family to become an actress and who, during a time of economic hardship, becomes a prostitute. I like how the film is structured into 12 tableaux, showing us just enough without becoming wrapped up in the artificial drama of how she comes to certain decisions about the direction of her life. We just see her at 12 different points in a cinema verite approach, and Godard refrains from making subjective statements about what happens to her. I think that sounds potentially alienating, and the film can be aloof, but it's a very human story about a very human character. In many ways Nana is a fool, a flighty woman flitting her way through life with an almost unjustified confidence and no small amount of charm. But she's also a human being, and I think Godard spends a good part of the film challenging us to see her for herself instead of seeing her for who she presents herself as. I don't always like Godard, but I think this is one of the most interesting movies I've seen in a while. ****

A garbageman and a cashier find... well, not love, really, but a sort of mutual comfort in one another in Finland. It looks good, but I found it remote and at times arch. It's not about people so much as it's about bold statements about the Proletariat that are never really said aloud. Window-dressing. **1/2

Beautiful Tarkovsky film about a 12 year-old Russian boy in World War II. He's lost his family to the Nazis and refuses to do anything now but carry out dangerous reconnaissance missions into German territory to aid the Soviet army. The focus here is on the human cost of war and not military glories; we see how humanity is subsumed, consumed, misshapen and altered forever in the face of violence, loss, and tragedy. A very human film, beautiful to look at, dealing with big emotional themes in a way that's not manipulative or pandering. Masterful. ****

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