Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Film Week

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

I don't know, I just thought it was bullshit for the same reason I thought the same director's United 93 was bullshit: by approaching the material as a docudrama, the filmmakers are removed from the responsibility of having a viewpoint or saying anything at all about what it's portraying. Aside from some really ham-handed dialogue in the film's opening which spells out the obviousness of the parallels between the two main characters--a parallel which I found rather simplistic and reductive--the film just sort of happens and is supposed to be suspenseful, even though it's so resolute in its "just the facts" refusal to engage its subjects on an emotional or intellectual level that I didn't know who I cared about or why. It was just there, and it has nothing to say about anything. And I think that's disingenuous, especially when there's a lot to talk about where Somalia is concerned and why it needs to resort to piracy. I learned more about it from reading this Cracked article than from a frame of this movie. This movie only exists to be nominated for Oscars. *1/2

Dealt with more fully here. ****

Fun, silly Rankin-Bass/Toho production that is in part based on the Rankin-Bass animated series The King Kong Show. Mechani-Kong is pretty awesome and fun. I would kind of love to see this made now with modern effects, because a mechanical giant gorilla is always a good thing. ***

ELYSIUM (2013)
A bleak but interesting skiffy action flick about class. In 2154, the 1% live on an orbital habitat called Elysium, where they live in comfort and have all of their health needs cared for, while the rest of the population lives on Earth in extreme poverty, their labor making Elysium possible for a few, and under the rule of harsh, draconian laws. Part of me wishes it hadn't been such an action movie, as I think there's always a moment when movies like this stop engaging with their ideas and the characters turn into predictable puppets of the third act, but it's shot and edited very well. Matt Damon is engaging as the man who challenges Elysium; I just always find him very amiable and likable. Very good movie, very timely (using science fiction to explore the way the rich exploit the poor has been relevant since pretty much the beginning of science fiction), and well-made. ***1/2

Interesting little movie about a movie theater projectionist (Chuck McCann) who fantasizes about being in the kinds of films he shows. It doesn't totally come off, I think, in large part to the silliness of his very long fantasy about being a hero in a Flash Gordon-style adventure, but the scene itself--a silent movie within the movie--is well done. (I do get annoyed easily when people make fun of silent films for being cheesy and overblown; certainly there are cheesy, overblown silent films, but there are also masterpieces.) I loved the scenes of McCann walking around 1968 New York City, and the way the film played with its editing and referencing itself, and particularly the scenes of McCann imagining himself in those sort of love story montages of early 60s British films (themselves influenced by the New Wave). There's also a great scene where McCann does impressions. Rodney Dangerfield, in his first film, plays the hostile, dictatorial theater manager who represents the enemy in McCann's fantasies, and I really wanted to see more of him; there's one scene where he's dressing down his ushers that's quite good and left me wanting more. There are a lot of good, disparate elements in this film that never quite add up, but it also has a lot of interesting things to say about our relation to pop culture, to film, and how we experience life through the prism of both. **1/2

Billy Wilder's excellent study of an alcoholic, played with intensity by Ray Milland. This is another one of those movies that I can't quite believe it took me this long to see. The film is mostly uncompromising in its portrayal of addiction, taking us into darker territory than I expected for a movie from 1945 (Milland's DT-induced hallucinations involving a mouse, a bat, and a streak of blood surprised and horrified me). Wilder is a director who seems to be hit or miss for me, but when he hits with me, he hits hard. Excellent stuff. ****

TESS (1979)
As a three-hour adaptation of a Victorian novel, Roman Polanski's Tess is surprisingly vibrant and alive. That's due in large part to his approach to the material (not exactly contemporary, but quite full-blooded), but in larger part to Nastassja Kinski, who played Tess when she was still a relatively inexperienced actress. She's not affected or mannered. She's something of a child of nature (the nature/pagan symbolism is all over this film) who is doomed to be the victim of the men in her life, even as she never seems to quite understand just what it is these various men want from her. It's a lovely, delicate movie that takes us closer and closer to its inevitable tragedy in a compelling, quiet way. ****

This is a wonderful, funny movie; it surprised me with its emotional depth. Rosalind Russell is so excellent and lovable as the main character, a bohemian woman trying to raise her late brother's son during the Great Depression. The film--adapted from a stage play that was itself adapted from a novel--has the structure of a musical, though it has no songs; appropriately enough, it was written by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, who wrote or adapted a number of great screen musicals, including On the Town, Singin' in the Rain, and The Band Wagon. I like the snappiness and the pacing of it, but it never detracts from an emotional core the grounds the film. I also like the stagey direction by Morton DaCosta (who directed the play on stage); I know "stagey" is often (and often tiresomely) used as a negative criticism, but here DaCosta uses stage-like lighting cues, which is a device I found very interesting. Used against the oversize sets, it has a way of taking us just enough outside of reality to accept this larger-than-life character as a character and not as a caricature. I liked it very much. ****

Z (1969)
It can be hard to make a compelling political thriller, but here, on only his third film, Costa-Gavras makes it look effortless. I was riveted to this film, a thinly-fictionalized account of the 1963 assassination of Greek politician Grigoris Lambrakis. The film knows the raw hatred that the call for change can bring out of people, and it was hard for me to watch this film without getting angry. There's really no victory here, no justice; sometimes it seems like there's never justice in the world, there are only regimes and organizations protecting themselves, even when they don't really bother to hide what they're doing. The film starts with the seemingly accidental death of a politician calling for nuclear disarmament, and an investigation follows that gets bigger and bigger until it leads to a government conspiracy. But... well, Roger Ebert put it best when he described as a film about how "even moral victories are corrupted." A powerful, suspenseful film. ****

I love the simplicity of this film. A man (Jean-Louis Trintignant, who also played a major role in Z) and a woman (Anouk Aimee) meet by chance at their childrens' boarding school and begin to fall in love, their budding relationship complicated by their professions and by their memories of their dead spouses. There's not much more to the story than that; so much of this film's emotional resonance is carried by the very human performances of the actors, the visual imagery, and Frances Lai's score. So much of it plays out without any dialogue; we simply watch as two strangers grow closer and begin to care for one another until it almost hurts them to be apart. It's simple, but timeless, and beautifully human. ****


Tallulah Morehead said...

Auntie Mame is one of my all-time favorite movies. The novel is a sacred text to me. (I have a first edition.) Patrick Dennis is my god.

When the movie came out, my mother saw it while 8 months pregnant with my younger brother. Agnes Gooch's difficulties getting about while amazingly over-pregnant (In the novel, Dennis describes her as "Standing there, twice as big as life") made her laugh harder than just about anything else in her whole life.

Roger Owen Green said...

I LOVED Z when it came out (yes, I'm old but you knew that). I have not seen it since. Maybe I'll watch it again, after I see Gravity and Osage County while they are still in the theaters; the latter is YOUR FAULT.