Thursday, November 14, 2013

Film Week

A review of the films I've seen this past week and didn't put up yesterday because I was busy.

Boy, I loved this. I would honestly put this second after The Avengers in my list of favorite movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I really love what they've done with Thor in these movies, basically turning him into an alien instead of a god and going so space opera with it. This is the kind of fun, exciting adventure picture I still live for: Flash Gordon with superheroes. And Kat Dennings. That's always important. I thought it had some lovely stuff about family, and all of the Easter Eggs they throw in linking it to the rest of the MCU and teasing future pictures just enhances the fun for an old comic book nerd like me. Also, it's always nice to be in the Marvel Universe where the nihilists aren't the heroes. Dug it, dug it, dug it. ****

My appreciation of Robert Altman films is pretty sporadic, so I put off this film for years and years. Finally I sat down with it this week and watched it, and I thought it was a generally excellent film from an era of generally excellent films. Warren Beatty and Julie Christie star as the title characters, who become business partners in a whorehouse in the Old West. Beatty is an opportunist looking for his next big payday, but when a mining company comes in sniffing around, he pushes back a little too hard, setting a chain of events in motion that are horrifyingly inevitable. The Leonard Cohen songs are a great, moody touch; the final sequence, set in the snow-filled town, are slow but gripping, and beautifully shot by Vilmos Zsigmond. I'd call this Altman's best film, personally. ****

Fascinating documentaries about the political tension in Chile in the early seventies and the counter revolution against the democratically elected Salvador Allende. I saw both parts on TCM, and was a little frustrated to discover that there's also a third part, so I'm getting only two thirds of the story, but the footage is amazing. It starts out with the filmmakers asking people about their hopes for the upcoming elections; at the time, the CIA was heavily involved with Chile and Allende and the Popular Unity movement were attempting to nationalize the industries and introduce social democracy. As demonstrations mount, the opposition begins to get violent, and the first film ends with the military moving in, taking aim at the cameraman filming him, and shooting him dead. The second film--which helpfully points out Pinochet among the opposition generals--begins with right wing violence and an attempted military coup that's unsuccessful, but mainly deals with industrial strikes (backed by the CIA) and the systematic dismantling of the government by the right wing opposition, who take control and force most of the Popular Unity politicians out through dubious legal means. What the CIA was trying to preserve, I have no idea, but they were able to end 48 years of democracy in Chile and give the people there 17 years of military dictatorship under Pinochet. The films I saw were powerful documents rather than pro-socialist propaganda, the last gasp of hope for freedom being crushed by opportunists. ****

Interesting, involving road picture by Wim Wenders. It's about a German man trying to fly home from America; he meets a woman in a similar predicament and befriends her, only for her to take off and leave her young daughter, Alice, in his care. He takes her home to Germany, now stuck with her, and takes her from city to city in an attempt to find her grandmother. She's not sure where grandmother lives, though, having only a picture of her door. It's a hard film to forget; it's quiet and observant, and doesn't labor any points while still giving us a sense of the exhaustion of a world that's becoming more modern and more homogeneous. They can't find the girl's home because every place is too much the same and indistinct, and the man's creativity is being stifled by a culture that demands art be conventional. ****

XALA (1975)
A couple of weeks ago I saw Ousmane Sembene's Sengalese film Black Girl, which was a damning, well-observed comment on colonialism in Africa. This film, about a polygamist Senegalese official who takes a third wife, only to discover that he's suffering from erectile dysfunction, is a commentary on the post-colonial African governments, which were corrupt, Western-influenced, and ineffective. Sembene is wry and insightful in his condemnation of his government's inability to get away from Western money and greed, and the way it turned its back on Senegalese tradition. There are a lot of folk elements in here that get the point across without being preachy or obvious. Interesting picture. ***

I watched this last night (it's only on Netflix until tomorrow), and I haven't been able to stop thinking about it. It's about three families and their guide on the Oregon Trail in 1845, making their way through the Cascade Mountains together. The film is slow-moving; it's really just observing these people against a vast wilderness, cut off from the world they were born into, unsure of how long it's going to take to get somewhere else. It has its own rhythm; it doesn't look like any other Western. It's shot in the Academy 1.37:1 ratio, giving the film a cramped look, giving us the impression of a group of people hewing close to one another, trying to find strength in their isolation, but really sort of trapped in this monotonous hardship. It takes a long time for it to become clear that they're lost and their guide is merely pushing ahead blindly, the water running out. The director, Kelly Reichardt (who also directed Wendy and Lucy, another film about people trying to leave somewhere, their efforts frustrated by their lack of resources), wants you to feel their experience, and does so by making their isolation, their fear at being so removed from society, with a sense of almost encroaching madness. She plays with the sound--she keeps us with the women in the group, straining to hear the distant men making decisions together, and at other times the sounds of the wagons on the dirt are so loud they sound like thunderstorms. These aren't people confidently overtaking the land for conquest; these are people subservient to the landscape, completely at its mercy, losing their way. This is like Aguirre, the Wrath of God; the terrain makes the suspicion and anger of these people and their societal breakdown increasingly irrelevant with its monotony. Reichardt really puts you there. And she leaves you there, too. It's not for everyone, but I found it fascinating and hard to let go of. ****

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