Thursday, January 07, 2016

Film Week

A review of the films I've seen since mid-December.

I'm so glad I finally got to spend a day watching Satyajit Ray's acclaimed Apu Trilogy. I've always wanted to see these films, and I'm kind of glad it took me this long to get to them, because I got to see them in what are apparently recent 4K restorations. These films tell the story of Apu, from birth to adulthood, as he grows, learns, and experiences happiness and tragedy. These are gorgeous films to look at; sumptuously detailed, but not showy. They are about the humanity that exists across India, in diverse regions, and the way we alternately connect and disconnect from one another, be it our parents, our friends, our children, our ways of life, or even ourselves. All of the films are great, although Aparajito suffers a little from being a middle passage between two films, but Apur Sansar is probably the one that affected me the most, where Apu goes with a wedding to a friend, finds himself becoming the groom in order to save the bride from embarrassment, and goes on a journey that leads to something of a self-acceptance that I found very moving. These are sincere, beautiful, mysterious films that I really can't do justice to by summarizing them. They tell the story of a life, but in a way, they embody life and its tragedy and its optimism. **** for each.

I liked it. I went over this already, but that's all I really feel like saying about it. ***1/2

One of Eric Rohmer's "Moral Tales," this one about the mind games two men play with each other and with a beautiful young girl staying at a villa with them over the summer. The men are mostly idle; they are intellectuals and concern themselves with dissecting the girl, Haydee, a free spirit with many lovers and admirers. The film's narrator, Adrien, is unreliable, and works on many assumptions he has but never really questions, secure in his intellectual superiority over Haydee, who is quiet and more insightful than he condescendingly gives her credit for. As in most of the "Moral Tales," Adrien's morality is not meant to be a universal morality, but one that he has fashioned for himself, and which has questionable conclusions. An interesting movie, the first ever shot by the great Nestor Almendros. ***

Another in the "Moral Tales" series, and probably my second-favorite. It mainly revolves around a conversation that occurs one Christmas night. Jean-Louis is a Catholic man in his thirties hoping to marry a woman he admires from afar; Maud is his best friend's lover, a divorcee who values honesty to the point of being blunt. They spend the night in her apartment and talk for a long time, getting to know one another, talking about love, sex, marriage, the future, philosophy, friendship... it's an excellently-observed scene, and the ramifications of that conversation and a moment of near-intimacy echo into the future. Takes are held for a long time... this is the kind of film that reminds you how exciting acting can be when characters are allowed to regard one another and relate to one another, instead of reciting lines of dialogue at one another in close-ups. ****

Another film by Satyajit Ray, this one concerned with the passage of time as the old world gives way to a new one. The main character is a landlord who lives in a palace by the sea. His palace is crumbling and he spends his days in idleness, his money running out and his house staff dwindling. Still, he insists on throwing lavish concerts in his ornate music room as a show of status, clinging to his old lifestyle even as the nouveau riche pop up around him. He will have everyone know his place, even if it costs him everything. It's a powerful, evocative film. Roger Ebert compared it, rightly so, to King Lear, as a story about a man with whom we sympathize even as he stubbornly indulges his vanity. ****

A disturbing, psychological film about a child abduction. When the child goes missing, the cop on the case (Elizabeth Banks) becomes haunted by a similar case she worked seven years before, in which two 11 year-old girls abducted and later murdered a baby. Both girls (Danielle Macdonald and Dakota Fanning) are 18 now and have recently been released from juvenile detention, and seem to be trying their best to re-integrate into their old lives. The film (directed by documentary filmmaker Amy J. Berg and written by Nicole Holofcener, based on a novel) is told in non-chronological order, revealing more about the past in ways that inform the present. I felt like some of those twists were pretty obvious, but the film's intensity and some of the performances (particularly Diane Lane as the mother of one of the girls) make it a compelling picture. ***1/2

Okay, I get it. It's not a great movie, but in another way, it's also kind of completely awesome. Patrick Swayze is basically like an American Bruce Lee in this movie, as a bouncer who is tasked with cleaning up a dive bar that becomes the focal point of a fight against corruption. I can't really defend it, but I enjoyed the hell out of it. Fun flick. ***

Eddie Murphy gets caught up with Tibetan mystics trying to locate the child who will bring peace to the world, but who has been abducted by a demon played by Charles Dance. It's not the unmitigated disaster I'd always heard, but at the same time... nothing about this movie really works. Big Trouble in Little China gets everything right that this movie gets wrong. I feel like the problem is that it's basically one those mid-80s fantasy adventures but the director and producers are trying too hard to make it a comedy. As I was watching it, I wanted it to be fairly straightforward and fun, with comic moments as the goofy, cynical main character becomes more and more drawn into it, like Big Trouble in Little China (or Ghostbusters or Galaxy Quest or a hundred other movies that get the balance right). But there's no real sense of fun here, and too often the movie stops so Eddie Murphy can just do his Eddie Murphy thing because it worked in previous movies. But it just doesn't here. Nothing works. **

Not as good as Divergent, which was more about personal growth, but I'm digging this series. I think the brutality of the bad guys creates a sort of intensity that makes the stakes seem bigger than they tend to in these YA movies. Can't wait for more. Really, anything Shailene Woodley wants to do at this point, I'll probably be into. ***

THX 1138 (1971)
Another movie I can't believe I haven't seen before now. I recently watched all of George Lucas's student films, and this felt like the culmination of all of them. I did find it draggy in the middle section, but a very compelling film, particularly in its editing, cinematography, and sound design. I've never heard anyone talk about it, but is everything that happens supposed to be taken at face value? There are a lot of familiar themes of dystopian science fiction, but its focus on drugs (and its main character's chemical imbalance) made me see themes of addiction recovery, perception, and anxiety that made me wonder if most of the second half wasn't occurring in THX's mind. Weird. ****

I spent a bit of last night reading about the making of this movie and the battle between director Nicholas Ray and writer-producer Budd Schulberg for control. To me, it felt like a big missed opportunity. Christopher Plummer plays a young man from the Audubon Society who goes to the Everglades at the turn of the 20th century to stop plume hunters who are poaching the bird population. Burl Ives plays the leader of these pirates. It's a bizarre movie, and Plummer seems miscast. Some of the characters get lost in a plot that veers into the nonsensical at times. It felt at times like I was seeing a rather turgid and unsuccessful adaptation of what must surely have been an involving novel. I didn't really like the movie, although there were individual elements and scenes I thought were really something, but reading some of the stories was pretty great. A missed opportunity. **

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