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.

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.