Sunday, November 18, 2012

Film Journal: Week Ending 10/28/2012

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962, Ford) **** (A)

Now THIS is the definitive John Wayne/John Ford collaboration I was waiting for. It also manages to dodge the annoyances of this era's genre conventions, not by eschewing them, but simply by doing them well. For the (inescapable) comic relief we are provided with veteran character actors like Andy Devine and Edmond O'Brien, who create real and amusing characters, rather than just stock dummies or midgets to hoot at. And was I just complaining about this era's overuse of "begin-at-the-end" framing device (which distracted me from the otherwise-excellent ALL ABOUT EVE)? Here it actually works magnificently, since the only thing that's really given away is that Stewart's upright lawyer/teacher-man/future-senator isn't fated to be gunned down by Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin, glowering in silly cowboy duds like only Lee Marvin can) during the central showdown. This doesn't ease the tension when the real battle of the movie is not between the heroes and the cowboy thug, but between the conflicting philosophies of society represented by the two leads. Can order be imposed upon chaos through principal and rule of law, or does the violent wild need to be tamed by men capable themselves of violence? It's to the film's credit that the answer appears to be 'yes.' Both Stewart's bookish-but-valiant Ransom Stoddard and Wayne's tough and capable farmer are seen as necessary components to a tamed West, but the civics lessons and nascent representational government at the heart of the movie make it clear that Stewart's vision of the frontier is waxing while Wayne's is waning.

As good as Stewart is here, it's Wayne who owns the show. Everything that can seem contrived about the Wayne persona is just right here; the swagger, the confidence, the machismo so over the top that it always flirts with ridiculousness (see Nathan Lane in THE BIRDCAGE mincing exactly like Wayne), all are in service of a character who is perfectly in service of the story. His Tom Donniphon is a man tough enough to warn the bad men away from himself and those under his protection, pragmatic enough not to try to protect too many, and good enough to be defenseless against the threat that the elegant and non-violent bravery of Stewart's lawyer represents to his romantic intentions. He's fated to be the man who paves the way unsung for the taming of the West, only to be left behind when it is tame. LIBERTY VALANCE echoes through the genre, prefiguring both LONESOME DOVE and UNFORGIVEN. This is one of the greatest westerns of all time.

The African Queen (1951, Huston) ** (C-)

John Huston directs Bogie and Hepburn? Given the pedigree, I was ready to enjoy what seemed like a classic from Old Hollywood, albeit a rather minor one. Famously (according to Wikipedia) shot on location, they really may as well have put it on the lot for all the use Huston makes of it. Some 'yes-you-are-in-Africa' wildlife are shoehorned into the movie in post like stock footage, but the majority of the film is tight and medium shots of the two actors, who are left completely alone for almost the entire running time. It's still fun enough as a breezy buddy film (it's great watching Bogart bluster, then immediately wilt every time, before Hepburn's indomitable resolve), but once Bogart's hard drinking river-rat and Hepburn's trademark fine-bred dame with an iron will fall in love (spoiler), the film rather unfortunately hangs its fortunes on the ability of the leads to generate some romantic heat, which they succeed into doing essentially the exact opposite of. Perhaps the morals code wouldn't let them express any heat while unmarried and cohabiting, perhaps they couldn't figure out how to be any more than admiringly amused by each other; in any case, this is rarely more than intermittently satisfying and never even remotely believable as a romance; I don't think the long sequence in which the Queen gets stuck in deep mud, nearly leading to the death of all (both) characters was meant to function quite so aptly as a metaphor for the film.

 Watchmen (2009, Snyder) ** (C-)

Alan Moore's famed graphic novel is arguably one of the great works of literature of the 80s – in any genre – so given that this movie is famously a slavish recreation of the source material, it's one of the greatest movies of the decade, right?

Hrrrrrm. Where to start? Well, first of all, I have to admit that the technical aspects are pretty close to flawless. This movie really *looks* like the comic. Um, some of the performances are pretty good, particularly Jackie Earle Haley as Rorschach, who is, let's face it, probably the character that transfers most easily to the modern comic book movie template, what with the grittiness and the violence. The special effects are solid, with a few exceptions. I liked them.

But...this is a modern comic book movie. Which is to say that, even though, with one major exception, the script hits all the main plot points (even retaining the 80s setting for no better reason than 'the comic was set in the 80's).. wow, it sure does manage to hit them for all the wrong reasons. I mean, Moore set out to completely explode superhero comics, and succeeded, taking the stylized world and playing it entirely straight and psychologically realistic. You can make a compelling argument that post-WATCHMEN 99% of superhero stories have been essentially redundant. Zach Snyder's film perversely subverts this subversion, turning WATCHMEN back into the exact sort of POW ZANG BANG comic book fantasy that Moore was celebrating/stabbing/mercy killing. So it can't be a surprise that the movie's one major point of divergence from the comic is Moore's sharp turn into EC Comics horror grotesquery, which obviously had to be transmogrified into something that is somewhat more movie-sensible (as long as you don't think about it too hard), with the somewhat unfortunate side-effect of destroying the entire point of the original story. Other than that, good movie. Oh yeah, also — Matthew Goode as Ozymandias would have given the worst performance in the history of anything if he hadn't been upstaged by the even worse Malin Ã…kerman as the Silk Scepbrzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz...Put it this way. She's very pretty, and even her sex scene is laughably boring.

Having said all that, if you devoured the comics in middle school as they came out, seeing the images come to life on the big screen can be awesome on a surface level. Just be aware going in that it's mainly foam, not much beer.

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