Sunday, October 14, 2012

Film Journal: Week Ending 10/7/2012

Lots of stars given out this week. What can I say? I tend to see movies that people I trust say are very good, and people I trust have gained that trust by being right a decent percentage of the time.  I'll try to get grouchier next time.

Mary Poppins (1964, Robert Stevenson) **** (A)

I think it's probably become diminished from the over-familiarity of some of the songs and scenes, but this comes close to being the best movie for families ever produced. It manages to be age-appropriate and engaging down to the very young (my kids loved it starting at age three) without losing charm or relevance for adults. It doesn't hurt that almost every song is a classic, lyrically and musically. Hard to miss how retrograde the gender politics are, given that the mother is essentially a witless dingbat, though even including a major suffragette story — with shout-out to Mrs. Pankhurst — in the background probably counts as a victory for Mad Men era Disney.

Van Dyke's accent is laughable, which is sort of the point for a character(s) clearly meant as comic relief, but he's also impossible not to watch, all rubber limbs and daffy grin. The children manage to seem headstrong and real without crossing into unforgivably bratty, and Andrews deftly manages to keep just enough of the title character's prickliness without ever making her less than charming. What sticks with me these days, though, are the visual flourishes, many of them sad or eerie: nannies like black handkerchiefs blown down the street. silhouette of chimney sweeps against the sky disappearing down the pipes (this is perhaps my earliest movie memory), Mr. Banks taking his slow walk to be sacked in a board room out of German expressionism; the classic shot of Mary's descent-upon-umbrella; and all those beautiful outdoor sets.

I also think there is evidence in the "text" of the movie that Mary Poppins is an ageless being who was once Burt's nanny, and probably his Uncle Albert's before him. But that's a story for another day (and probably for Neil Gaiman to tell).

Taxi Driver (1976, Martin Scorsese) **** (A)

Scorsese's dark poem of loneliness and alienation and menace still reverberates, even after the ubersleaze Manhattan of "Taxi Driver" received a "real rain" of sorts (courtesy not of an angry God, but of Rudy Giuliani — same diff?) . Watching this again after perhaps a 15 year absence, I'm struck by (1) how gorgeously it's shot; I'd remembered it as a grainy sort of color-drained Dogma 95 template, not Michael Chapman's flood of night-reflections and vivid color; and (2) the potential surrealism, which may not be precisely the right term, but given that our narrator is decidedly untrustworthy even to himself, I found myself wondering if/when we might be seeing the action filtered through the unhinged perceptions of our main character. Is the 'hero montage' following the shootout real? How real? Unsure if the final "chance" encounter with Shepherd isn't a return to obsessive stalking, though it played ambiguously to me. Not usually a fan of voice-over, though really how else can you get into the head of Travis Bickle? Is he talkin' to us? Is he talkin' to us?

Starman (1984, John Carpenter) *1/2 (D)

Man, was this weak sauce. Everything about this screams "80s TV movie" except for one scene in the opening minutes in where the alien incorporates as human, passing through some truly Carpenter-worthy stages of body horror before coming out the other end as Jeff Bridges with feathered hair. After that, they may as well have had one of the 2nd string directors on season 3 of "Simon & Simon" at the helm, with boring pacing, camerawork, and...I don't know, boring everything. The love story that develops is creepy in the extreme, given that it doesn't effectively deal with the fact that the Starman is posing as the husband of Karen Allen's grieving widow, and thus is playing on emotions that neither of them is really processing. I don't think that Bridges' sometimes-lauded, Oscar-nominated turn has held up that well, perhaps because it's become the template for every other Gentle Alien Too Good For Our Violent Species over the years. I suppose he should get credit for being the least annoying example of the annoying archetype he sort of created here, and he does do some subtle work, but I'm still going to blame him for co-starring in K-PAX (in the non-alien role) and taking Kevin Spacey right down the tubes for 12 years (and counting) now. As for the special effects, suffice to say, I envision BACK TO THE FUTURE snapping at STARMAN, Mark Wahlberg-style: "I'm the guy from your era that still looks cool today. You must be the other guy."

Melancholia (2011, Lars von Trier) ***1/2 (A-)

Lars von Trier's most recent flawed-but-brilliant movie opens with one of the most astonishing collection of images I've seen in film, each a high-definition diorama unspooling in ultra slow motion, each containing the vivid specificity, vague symbolism, and inchoate menace of a dream that's on the cusp of nightmare. It isn't a spoiler to tell you that the final image in this seqence shows an immense planet colliding with Earth, first dwarfing and finally annihilating it, because while some of these images come to pass, others don't, or else occur, but only on a symbolic level. Will the planet Melancholia really connect, or will it just be a signifier of some deeper emotional truth?

I don't know if it's a demerit against MELANCHOLIA that it never manages to live up to the promise of its opening — I'm not sure a narrative is up to the task (and part of me just wishes that the whole movie was just a series of similar beautiful intangible wonder).

In brief, the film is divided very formally into two parts. In the first, a just-married couple arrives for their reception at a palatial home belonging to the sister and brother-in-law of bride Justine (Kirsten Dunst), only to see the party destroyed in excruciating increments by the bride's crippling depression. In the second, Dunst returns to the mansion to recuperate, as the titular planet does whatever it's going to do: either making its slingshot orbit safely around Earth or else enacting the complete destruction we saw in the opening moments.

The wedding is barely discussed in the second part, while the planet is not mentioned at all in the first (the timing isn't clear, but it's possible that the characters are not yet aware of it), yet we are clearly encouraged to conflate Dunst's depression with the potentially all-destroying dark orbit of the planet. That this sort of gonzo metaphor is usually successful probably speaks to von Trier's skills as a formalist, but the broad application of it also unfortunately has the effect of divorcing us most of the time from emotional empathy with the characters, which might be a flaw in a movie that's about the destruction of all known life in the universe. It's enough of a misstep to make this a really good movie instead of a great one. Justine in particular seems more like an idea than a person, though Durst plays the hell out of that idea (it turns out she's capable of an alien glare that's chilling enough to suggest a life-snuffing planet.) She manages to put very old eyes into a young face. But she never quite works as a person.

Similarly, Justine's interesting proposition – that mass destruction might not even be so tragic given how awful people can be – doesn't connect with the impact it should, because the people at the wedding party are, while occasionally and to greater and lesser degrees awful, they seem to be abstractions, not real people who have the alleged real relationships with one another they purportedly have. They're all planets on disconnected orbits.

Synecdoche, New York (2008, Charlie Kaufman) ***** (A+)

Astonishing. I'm actually going to wait until I've had a chance to take it in again (soon, hopefully), before writing extensively about this. Suffice it to say that it's on my short list for the greatest movie of the decade, an aching, surreal, confusing, heartbreaking, funny, beautiful rumination on the state of the human condition and identity and the nature of reality itself. I say this as somebody who hasn't been skeptical of many of the other big Charlie Kaufman films, but I can't recommend this highly enough. It's the film version of some miraculous union of Pynchon and Dostoyevsky and Kafka.

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