Sunday, November 25, 2012

Film Journal: Week Ending 11/18/2012

The Pianist (2002, Polanski) ***1/2 (B+)

Not another Holocaust movie. Yes. I know. THE PIANIST is still worth a look.

Anchored by an extraordinary (and for long stretches silent) performance by Adrien Brody, this is not so much a Holocaust movie as a survivalist movie. It's a film about hunger and desperation, about somebody who survives not because he is particularly brave, or resourceful, or strong, but partly because he is lucky, and mostly because he is willing to survive. Polanski is wise enough to film most of the atrocity at the same distance as observed by its protagonist, but savvy enough to make each death seem like the end of a story just as vital as the one we are following. The old woman whose scant allotment of food is spilled and slurped by a desperate vagrant contains two separate films unto itself, that of the vagrant, and that of the woman. We are left to intuit the result from his chin-on-the-cobblestone hunger, from her racking sobs as she impotently beats him: The thief lived another day for his theft. Her family starved for it. We die inside for the woman. We try to judge the thief and cannot. Our hero passively endures, as 1940s Warsaw closes around him and other Jews like a slow noose, until finally the world is a hellish shell, even an battered can of okra contains all the world's hope – and then, unexpectedly and all at once, in an extraordinary sequence, beauty comes briefly crashing back in.

Battleship Potemkin (1925, Eisenstein) ***1/2 (A-)

Landmark status is clear, a lot of the imagery still packs a punch, and the Odessa stairs sequence is rightfully lionized, but ultimately this is something that was stylized for another age. Learning to groove on silent films is a learned skill that I expect I haven't fully learned (though surprisingly the performances are far less theatrical than usual for the time). I guess I'll be adding this to the list of top-shelf influential films that I admire more than love. It's not you, Potemkin. It's me.

Step Brothers (2008, McKay) **** (A)

I don't care. You hear me? I just don't care. Yes, it's frequently dumb, probably overstuffed, and it traffics in an arrested development man-boy trope that is pretty tired. I recognize this. It's also the funniest thing I've seen in ages, with Ferrell's hyperactive doughy labradoodle contrasting perfectly with Reilly's confused belligerent bulldog, and the blind, misplaced confidence the two bring to whatever they do just makes me laugh. It makes me laugh all the different ways. There's rarely a moment that doesn't have at least a couple gems, though a series of job interviews is particularly choice. Adam Scott, Mary Steenburgen, and Richard Jenkins all come to play, with a gameness (in particular Jenkins recounting his boyhood aspiration to be a dinosaur and Scott leading his family in a too-perfect a capella rendering of Guns N Roses) that helps make this more than just a two man show. It's one of those movies in the proud tradition of THE JERK, where the idiocy is an asset.

Ice Age 4: Continental Drift (2012, Martino/Thurmeier) **1/2 (C)

A professionally crafted, fairly unimaginative children's entertainment product (I haven't seen the other three), leavened by a number of genuinely funny moments, and a number of essentially unrelated sequences featuring a creature that I won't pretend I don't know is called a Scrat, who futilely and single-mindedly chases an acorn in what essentially are interstitial cartoon shorts in the vein of classic Road Runner (Scrat being the missing link of Wile E. Coyote). It's somewhat unfortunate that these segments are considerably more entertaining than the movie they're designed to frame.

Brave (2012, Andrews/Chapman/Purcell) *** (B)

Fairly slight, especially for a Pixar movie, but gorgeously rendered, and possessed by one of the most whacked-out plot events of the year, which immediately removes it from the tired old "princess asserts her 21st century-appropriate sense of self-actualization in the face of traditional expectations" trope promised by the marketing, and spins it off into something more complex and satisfying, and also absurdly funny. (Not to say that women shouldn't be self-actualized, just that it's nice to see a movie with a strong female character that is about more than just that). Also, Mike Meyers' efforts to the contrary notwithstanding, Scottish accents are funny always.

The Life And Death Of Colonel Blimp (1945, Powell/Pressburger) **** (A)

Powell and Pressburger continue to impress(burger). Apparently the main (and title) character is drawn loosely from a famous Brit cartoon character of the early 20th century, who represented blinkered out-of-touch conservative blowhards of a certain type, but the Archer Studio masters use him as a template upon which to ruminate on the moment when war stopped being the province of gentlemen and became instead an industrialized free-for-all, devoid of scruple or rules of engagement. This has the typical Powell/Pressburger gorgeous technical expertise and flights of formalized surrealism, but few movies rely more upon the context of its release date to give it true poignancy and meaning. Given that this film: (a) It was made Britain during the Blitz, for God's sake; (b) features as its central relationship a longstanding friendship of honor between a British officer and a German one; and (c) mourns the amoral ruthlessness (drawn in stark contrast with the code of honor represented by "Blimp", aka our hero, Clive Candy) which a new breed of allied warriors feels compelled to employ to counter the Nazi horde, it seems an almost foolhearty act of bravery to have produced such a movie.

The Invention of Lying (2009, Gervais) **1/2 (C+)

Brilliant premise, squandered. Gervais is ingratiating as the man in a high-concept alternate universe that never learned to lie. I think he's actually underrated as an actor; his naturalistic, in-the-moment reactions are a big reason the high concept works to the extent that it does. A deathbed sequence packs an existential punch that you don't usually get in comedies; crucially, however, Gervais frequently mistakes "not lying" with "expressing in clinical detail decisions about genetic preference as regards sex", which wouldn't be so fatal if it didn't become one of the movie's two central conceits. Simply put, even if we didn't lie, we wouldn't turn down dates by talking about genes. There's a difference between prevarication and reptile-mind subconscious, and at a certain point it just becomes distracting and creepy, especially since as a result we're meant to root for Gervais' likeable shlub to get together with a beautiful but ghoulish racial purist (Jennifer Garner, struggling at least semi-heroically with an impossible character).

Louis CK without a beard is unnerving.

Drive (2011, Refn) ***1/2 (B+)

A very pretty exercise in stripped-down style, which is basically enough for me. The opening getaway sequence alone is worth the price of admission, though it never quite reaches those heights again, and I found myself wishing for a movie that was just a disconnected sequence of such scenes. Gosling seems to come from some earlier breed of movie star, though since I've seen very little of his output to this point (I'm not sure, and it doesn't even seem possible, but I think this is the first role in which I've seen him), it's certainly possible that this is an affectation for this particular movie. Still, he does the stoic stalwart thing effectively, perhaps too much so. Since we never really get a sense of his motivations, he almost fails to register as human. Albert Brooks makes up for it, though, as a pragmatist wise guy who can murder you like he's doing you a favor.

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