Sunday, October 7, 2012

Film Journal: Week Ending 9/30/2012

The Big Lebowski (1997, Joel & Ethan Cohen) **** (A) 
Jeff Bridges and John Goodman must have known that they were turning in career-defining comedic work every second they spent on the set of this beautiful shaggy dog story, which is, in true noir fashion, mainly just about itself and the flavor of its own particular milieu. That this flavor is drenched not in hard-bitten 40s urban cynicism, but rather in early-90s LA shaggy-dog goofbally slackertude is the running joke, but the truth is that there's not much more attempt to follow the actual logical thread of the mystery in, say, "The Big Sleep", then there is in this. Less, probably, given that you actually can figure out what's going on, if that's what matters to you. Endlessly watchable, endlessly quotable (a personal unsung favorite is "You want a toe, dude? I can get you a toe"). Only Sam Elliot seems out of place, though I would happily watch a documentary comprising just a camera following him as he tried to figure out what the tarnation movie he was supposed to be in, anyway.

Dr Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964, Stanley Kubrick) **** (A)
It's a shame that Sellers died young, or he (like Eddie Murphy and Mike Myers after him) could have gotten rich playing multiple characters in comedies, some of them in fat suits, many of them farting.

Um, this is a really great movie. You all know that, right? Hard to imagine how bracing the comedy would have been to an audience who probably literally did expect to die in nuclear combat toe to toe with the Ruskies. The lunacy of the war room seems less and less like satire with every passing year, doesn't it? — even as we start to worry more about cheap nano-drones weaponized with IEDs and biological agents and less about nukes. Kubrick deserves extra-extra credit for committing to a comic tone all the way into the inevitable Armageddon. Imagine this film focus-grouped into a happy ending, and shudder.

The only thing keeping this from my pantheon of 5-star movies is the fact that there are a few blunderbusses too many; I get the sense that if Scott and Peter Bull (as the Soviet ambassador) had been allowed to play a little less the buffoons, the sui generis horror of Sellers' Strangelove would have been even more effectively hilarious by contrast. (Note that Sellers himself played straight man in his other two roles. President Muffly is practically Bob Newhart.)

Fat City (1972, John Huston) ***1/2 (A-)
Man, this has to be a frustrating movie for anybody who wants it to be the genre boxing movie it appears to be at the outset; the old pug (Stacey Keach) on his last legs who sees a diamond in the rough (Jeff Bridges, startlingly young) and trains him to glory.

Having set up this premise, Huston spends the rest of the movie ruthlessly subverting it. Keach basically turns Bridges over to his former trainer and proceeds to completely forget about him for the rest of the movie. The trainer fools himself into seeing the same promise Keach did, taking him out on the road for a Montage of Victory—and then the kid turns out to be not a diamond, but a zircon. I don't remember for sure, but it's possible we never see Bridges win a single fight. He and Keach rarely cross paths again, the kid follows some of the pug's same bad choices, and makes a few of his own. At the end, they meet up again, the younger several miles behind the elder, but both on the same bad road bending off into nowhere.

This isn't a boxing movie. What it is is a startling, unflinching, frequently aimless look at poverty lived out in urban nowhere, of long hard uncertain labor and short paychecks and life fueled by nothing but pure stubborness and drinking and bad choices and loneliness—which for some people happens to include boxing.

It's imperfect. Like its characters, it meanders. Sequences go overlong. But certain scenes keep with me: A long sequence in which Keach seduces a hot mess (Susan Tyrell, Oscar-nominated) with an imprisoned boyfriend with nothing but genial persistence and the repeated slurred phrase: "you can count on me." A brutal final boxing match in which it becomes evident Keach's challenger is in even a situation even more desperate than his own. The odd dignity with which one man reclaims his home and woman. And the bracing moment when Keach's washed-up palooka laments that he'll soon turn thirty years old. I'd been assuming he was in his mid 40s.

The Hunger Games (2012, Gary Ross) ** (C-)
Fairly drab and semi-sensical distopian fairy tale about Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence), a teen from an oppressed district within a fascist regime, forced to compete with other children from other oppressed district in the titular annual battle to the death, which really...complicates her love life?

Look, I'm not saying that this is a story that can't be properly told within the given framework, but since very real atrocities against human dignity are on display (to say nothing of a sheltered and degenerate aristocracy made wealthy on the pain and suffering of the masses, whose deaths are served up as reality-show entertainment) you're really going to need strong characters for it to not seem like post-Twilight YA-novel pandering. Unfortunately, the male leads are competing slabs of blah, so focusing on the "Team Peeta vs. Team Gale" dynamics—which the source novel also does—is tone deaf and confusing. Basically this is a move that attempts to ruthlessly send up US reality-TV culture but then concerns itself primarily with the question "to whom will the Bachelor give the rose?"

Lawrence acquits herself as the material allows, but really only recalls how she played a very similar character in WINTER'S BONE. Woody Harrelson provides a spark of life as the district mentor and former contest winner, and then promptly disappears almost completely. Meanwhile, the games themselves, which you'd think would provide our hero with moral quandaries aplenty, by and large eschews all that. A few of the contestants are Very Saintly Good, a few are Pure Evil Incarnate, and the rest are Nameless Meat, but in any event they are all allowed to kill each other off-screen or in disorienting blur, by and large without Katniss' assistance. This allows us to stop considering the morality of murder in the name self-protection, and instead contemplate: what in the name of God is that.. THING growing on poor Wes Bentley's face?

3 Women (1977, Robert Altman) ****1/2 (A)
I'm really not sure what to do with the fact that: (a) no less than three of the grandmasters of film have made what is essentially the same movie; and (b) that this same film represents an apex or near-apex in terms of craft, thematic strength, or emotional intensity.

In short, this is Robert Altman's PERSONA. Unless it's Robert Altman's MULHOLLAND DRIVE. Though, of course, MULHOLLAND DRIVE would have to be David Lynch's 3 WOMEN by way of PERSONA, wouldn't it, since this film predates Lynches by 24 years? But then again, since all three movies deal in startlingly consistent ways with strong female characters (Spacek is as good as she's ever been, Duvall turns in a career-best performance), dream logic, suggested suicide, shifting power dynamics, fluid and transposing identities within overt questions about the nature of time and of reality itself . . .it feels more as if all three directors have delved deep enough to come upon one of the subterranean ur-stories.

I'm talking about three movies as I talk about 3 WOMEN. Suffice to say there's a deep analysis to be made between these three, but that would be after many more viewings than I've put in. What strikes me about this particular one is that Altman really isn't the sort of director to get so deeply into psychodrama or menace or abstraction as to produce something like this. It may be the true outlier within his filmography; it certainly qualifies as such within the movies of his I've seen. There's an utterly cracked dream sequence near the end that hits notes that I didn't know he had in him. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say I didn't know he had any interest in hitting them; it's almost as if Altman himself were taking on an ulterior identity.

It's also the outlier within the triptych. I'd say that Altman is closer to Lynch than Bergman (again, Lynch came later, but Altman almost seems to be channeling him here). What Altman adds is his trademark sly humor (example: a dress keeps getting caught in a car door) and a third character (PERSONA and MULHOLLAND are strictly duos) who does little but provide the disturbing priapic-alien swimming pool murals (which themselves cast enough of a spell over the proceedings as to claim third-character status) until, in the final act, she comes hurtling in from the ether to deliver us from dream into bloody reality and disorienting finality.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Good to see you writing again goat.

I actually watched Star trek and Hunger games lately, mainly so I can enjoy their Editing Room scripts.