Sunday, December 2, 2012

Film Journal: Week Ending 11/25/2012


The Gold Rush (1925, Chaplin) *** (B+)


OK, friends, questions: (1) The tinny pianoforte music that plays during silents — is it canon? I mean, is that a directorial choice, or could I think about substituting in something else that doesn't make me hate everybody and everything, without compromising what the director wanted the viewing experience to be? (2) Almost all title cards are pointless. I realize that isn't a question, but seriously. About halfway through this I started counting which title cards actually provided information useful to the story, and I counted two (one of which provided context for a show-shoveling bit that would have been funny enough anyway, and another that made it clear what song was being sung by a crowd, though it probably could have been guessed). All the rest told me something I already knew just from watching. So what I'm saying is, title cards are basically the lazy trope of the silent era like voice-over is the lazy trope of this one. Are there versions with title cards out? Are the cards part of the director's 'authorship', or were they added after the fact?

All this is by way of getting at why I'm not really captured by silent movies, even those (like this one) that are clearly masterpieces of their form. I suspect it's something like learning a new language; there's something about the visual vocabulary of the form that lets me get the gist, but not hear the poetry. I'm still checking the English-to-French dictionary.

Regardless of all this, if you speak fluent Silent-ese, this is obviously not to be missed. THE GOLD RUSH is home to some of Chaplin's most famous bits, to the point that it's practically a greatest hits collection (dinner rolls dancing, cabin on a cliff, eating the shoe, and whatdya know, Loony Tunes cribbed its "starving guy sees his friend turn into food" bit from the Tramp). Chaplin is a beast, with a muscularity to his shtick that I wasn't expecting (e.g. his 'stiff as a board' routine) and I don't know if there's a more expressive performer in film; the guy can give you happy, sad, proud, or suicidal, without voice, from the back, simply in how he walks. Also surprising: the Yukon's Darwinian living conditions are presented starkly for a comedy (the opening shots of endless lines trudging through winter waste could have come from some POTEMKIN-esque social commentary, hunger is ever-present, and life is cheap); and the tiny continuity details that become running visual gags. After eating his shoe, the Tramp's foot is for the rest of the movie wrapped in a jury-rigged towel. Hope Chaplin didn't use real snow.



Serpico (1973, Lumet) *** (B) 

Al Pacino's shaggy intensity in the title role provides a lot of the value to this rather straightforward movie, whose plot, interestingly enough, boils down to: "Serpico's co-workers want shoot Serpico, Serpico no like, Serpico want transfer, why nobody transfer Serpico?" Kudos to the film for not falling into the common biopic trap and deifying the man, whose strength came mainly from stubbornly wanting to do a good job. The central irony that Lumet wisely presents is that Serpico isn't a crusader until he's absolutely forced to be, and wouldn't have testified against his dirty colleagues if they hadn't been so concerned that he would testify. Serpico apparently didn't so much want to expose the pervasive culture of corruption and bribery that (apparently) existed at all levels of the NYPD, he just wanted to be free to not have to take part in it, and apparently to slowly transform into a wolfman in hobo clothes. (Having seen "It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia" hilarious homage, which really takes the piss of the badass cool the film clearly intends Pacino to convey, I confess I had more trouble taking the character seriously than I otherwise would have. Probably colored my appreciation.)


Prometheus (2012, Scott) **1/2 (C+)

More like "Promethe-MESS", amiright, amiright?

So yes, I won't belabor all the things that totally didn't work here (honorary mention to "run LEFT OR RIGHT" and "that's right...FATHER"), but it's undeniable four months later that this belongs to the special class of movies that manage to make less and less sense every time you think about it. The problem here isn't that it's a silly story, it's that it's a silly story that has delusions of grandeur; it *thinks* it's a very deep and meaningful story. It's a shame, really, since most other aspects of the movie besides that story actually are compelling. Ridley Scott clearly is one of the top visual craftsmen working today, it just appears that he's not sure exactly what to do with these impressive, immersive worlds he designs. I'd say it's incorrect for people (and I include myself) to have hoped for this as Scott's return to making movies that have thematic depth, since he's never really done that (BLADERUNNER aside, maybe). He's just always been about image and moment over story. Perhaps this should have been a silent movie without humans, or at least without dialogue? Anyway, the 'remove foreign object' sequence is a top-shelf suspense set piece, and Michael Fassbender is fantastic (I was going to write that he gave "the greatest android performance ever" until I realized that doesn't sound very impressive) in a role that ultimately —again — doesn't make any sense, but at least his chilly ambiguity, filtered through Peter O'Toole, fits the tone the movie is trying to reach, whenever it isn't forcing us to laugh at hilarious old age makeup, that is.


The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993, Selick) **** (A)

The jittery other-worldliness of stop motion meets a perfect subject. I suspect this is a movie that would make an effective viewing experience without sound; based solely on non-stop visual inventiveness and immediately iconic character models (the way the creatures pull off "genuinely nightmarish yet nonthreatening" is a constant surprise), this this would probably be destined for classic status even if the songbook wasn't a murderer's row. I'm not educated enough on his oeuvre to say this definitively, but I'm thinking this is Danny Elfman's finest hour, right? If you're not totally captured after the "This is Halloween" opener, I forgive you, but I can't help you. Not sure there is a dud song in the batch, musically or lyrically (maybe Oogie Boogie). I guess my one quibble is that there's not much attempt at defining a unique mythology, or even making it coherent — the holiday portals are *inside* the Halloween wood? — but I suspect Selick's instinct to favor pageantry over specificity are correct. Funny that the most Tim-Burtony, Tim Burtonesque movie Tim Burton ever Tim Burtoned wasn't even Tim Burtoned by Tim Burton. Probably for the best. Tim Burton.


Paper Moon (1973, Bogdanovich) ***1/2 (A-)

With a couple forgivable exceptions, this is an unconventionally unsentimental take on the "child disrupts selfish man's life" trope, mainly because the human suffering is observed rather than underlined, and especially because the kid's angry exterior hides only an even more angry interior, significantly more pragmatically avaricious than her adoptive-probably-biological father figure. She doesn't want to melt his heart, she wants to refine it into something more effective.

Despite strong performances from Ryan O'Neal and (Oscar winning) daughter Tatum as the Depression-era flim flam man and the orphan waif he takes on a road trip across struggling America (during which they mercifully learn absolutely no Life Lessons), PAPER MOON's primary pleasures are stylistic. This is, in essence, Bogdanovich's mostly successful attempt at making a John Ford movie. The old-school composition and cinematography made me wish that black-and-white deep focus movies of this sort were still commercially viable enough to be made today. There's a painterly artificiality to the format that I nevertheless find totally compelling. But this is a pretty good last gasp from an abandoned style.

So where did P-Bog go after dropping this and THE LAST PICTURE SHOW within a two-year span? Come on, man. Get off the mat.


Hanna (2011, Wright) ** (C)

I really don't know what the hell to make of this. It's the KICK-ASS Hit Girl filtered through THE BOURNE IDENTITY real-world spy grit filtered through a French coming-of-age sexual awakening story filtered through a music video. It's frenetic and visually compelling and total nonsense and I rarely gave much of a shit. Eric Bana has muscles in a very sensitive sort of way. Occasionally Cate Blanchett happens all over this movie in an explosion of insane, dentalflossing scenery-chewing; highly entertaining, but it works at total cross-purposes to the ethereal quiet center Saoirse Ronan is attempting (frequently with success) to provide.

Oh, and Joe Wright? Learn how the internet works. It's 2011. The scene where Hanna looks up the entire top-secret government project, complete with photos proving her true identity, by basically doing a keyword search on "WHAT IS MY SECRET BACK STORY" from an Internet Cafe (!) would have been embarrassing in 1998.

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