Friday, December 04, 2009
Movie Roundup: Winter Break Edition
The eighth Metro Classics series came to an end this week with a resounding success. Our first ever sold out showing made this our most profitable series ever. We're taking a break for a couple of months, but plan to be back just before Valentine's Day. In the meantime, we'll continue to have new content up at that blog every week, some end of the year lists and even a combined Top 72 films of the decade. For now though, I'm going to try to get back to writing here at The End. First up is a round-up of the movies I've seen recently, hopefully followed by the wrap up of what we saw at this year's Vancouver International Film Festival which has been sitting here in draft form for over two months. After that, I'd like to get back to the Movies Of The Year countdowns, which I'm aghast to realize I haven't updated in over a year.
Wild Reeds - A very nice coming-of-age movie and an interesting contrast with American Graffiti. Both films take place at the same time, roughly 1963, but Lucas's film is an elegy, haunted by the war and social change that'd be coming a few years later. Wild Reeds though, is haunted by the past, both the war in Algeria that comes to an end during the course of the film, but also WW2 and the factionalism of France's postwar politics. The end of American Graffiti leaves us with the sense that this time was the best night of its characters lives, that everything would go downhill from there. Wild Reeds leaves us with the sense that the characters lives are just beginning, that the whole world has opened up to them. The two movies use some of the same rock songs on their soundtracks ("Runaway", "Barbara Ann", "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes"), which I think had to be intentional on director Andre Téchiné's part. The #14 film of 1994.
Where The Wild Things Are - The Marie Antoinette of 2009. Like that film, it looks pretty, has a wacky "indie" score and is totally self-indulgent and self-aggrandizing. Unlike that film, it is suffused with what appears to be an attempt at conveying the frustrations and melancholy of childhood, but which instead comes off as self-pitying whininess. Despite all that, the thing that irritated me most about the film was fairly minor: the film's sense of time is utterly confused. It opens with the main character outside in the snow. Later in what is apparently the same day, he runs out into a completely snow-free night. His journey to the land of the Wild Things seems to take place entirely at dawn and dusk, with no day or night in-between. And once he gets there, we follow him through the night to dawn, when he goes to sleep. When he wakes up, it is apparently dawn still, as we follow him throughout the day time. Essentially, director Spike Jonze sacrificed all notion of temporal continuity for the sake of filming only at the magic hour (and the only reason I can think of for the weirdness at the beginning is he A. wanted the main character to build a snow fort as a precursor to his later actions while B. didn't want the audience to worry about a little kid alone in the snow at night). I know it's a nitpick, but it drove me nuts trying to figure out when things were supposed to be happening. Sometimes, I think I'm the only person in the world who can't stand the Spike Jonze-Sofia Coppola-Charlie Kaufman-Michel Gondry brand of hipster solipsistic aestheticism.
Spring In A Small Town - From 1948 and directed by Fei Mu, the Hong Kong Film Academy voted it the best ever Chinese language film a few years ago. I don't know about that, but it is really good. A love triangle plays out in a bombed out post-war space, the pacing is deliberate and the compositions are simple, beautiful and rarely call attention to themselves. I don't know if it's this film's influence, or simply a matter of a national style, but it obviously has a ton in common with later Chinese and Taiwanese films. The #7 film of 1948.
7th Voyage Of Sinbad - Totally entertaining film full of great Ray Harryhausen monsters. Kerwin Mathews is serviceable as the hero who is blackmailed into stealing a lamp and an egg from a cyclops in order to return his girlfriend (the stunning Kathryn Grant) to the correct size. A weird mixture of Arab and Greek mythology that is always fun. The #19 film of 1958.
Road House - Pretty good, but still trails at least Commando on my Totally Awesome 80s Action Movies list. Great cast for a Rowdy Herrington film. Patrick Swayze plays a surprisingly short bouncer brought into to clean up a small town bar and runs afoul of the local tycoon/villain played by Ben Gazerra, of all people. Fortunately his old buddy Sam Elliot shows up to give him support. I like the idea of a world wherein bouncers can become nationally famous for their bouncing skills. The #25 film of 1989.
Godzilla - The original Japanese version which I'm surprised I'd never actually seen before (I think I might have seen the version with Raymond Burr once). So much better than I thought it would be. Surprisingly nuanced it the way it deals with the main theme of so many Cold War sci-fi movies: the unintended consequences of scientific advances. Both Takashi Shimura as the scientist who wants Godzilla to live so he can be studied and the eyepatch-wearing scientist who has invented the only weapon that can save Tokyo but doesn't want to use such a destructive discovery are compelling: the film doesn't have a reductive view of science but rather embraces its contradictions. All that and giant lizard mayhem! The #10 film of 1954.
Fantastic Mr. Fox - I'm having a hard time thinking of anything I didn't like about Wes Anderson's new film. The stop motion animation is excellent, and Anderson's fastidious attention to set design and detail is perfect for this kind of filmmaking. The adaptation and expansion of Roald Dahl's novel is completely in keeping with Anderson's thematic obsessions (it's about oddballs trying and failing to fit in with society, and their coming to grips and celebrating their own inner wild animal) and visual style (his 2D planar framing has never been more appropriate to his material). It's fun and funny throughout, in that Anderson way that doesn't necessarily make me laugh out loud, but instead leaves me smiling for an hour and a half. He's most definitely my kind of hipster.
Woman Is The Future Of Man - The third Hong Sang-soo film I've seen, and the most imperfect. Once again, there's a love triangle involving a film director, but the scenario doesn't multiply as much as in Like You Know It All, nor are the repetitions as symmetrical as they are in that film or Woman On The Beach. It's bleaker than those other two films as well. While Beach had a strong sense of melancholy, this film at times seems downright hopeless. Perhaps my problem was that the film didn't, like those other two, focus on the film director character as much as his friend (a professor in this film). I really like that director character. The #12 film of 2004.
Team America: World Police - Too much of a mess to be more than halfway great. The puppetry and set designs are fantastic though. The film's really only good when it's parodying action movies: all the political, anti-actor stuff is either obvious or obnoxious. Same goes for the music. A huge letdown after all the brilliant songs in the South Park movie. But hey, who doesn't love crazy puppet sex? And the cats, the cats were great. The #30 film of 2004.
The Brothers Bloom - Something's missing here, but I don't know what it is. This story of con artist brothers on one last caper should be a much better movie. I like a lot of it, but the prologue and narration are ultimately unnecessary (I hate disappearing narration) and I'm not sure that the end really makes sense. The film plays with the notion of life as performance and being written/unwritten, but I don't know that it has anything really interesting to say about it. Director Rian Johnson shows some promise, but like with his first film, Brick, this ultimately feels like less than the sum of its parts. Rinko Kikuchi almost saves it though. She's fabulous. The #36 film of 2008.
Gates Of Heaven - People are weird. The wife asked if he (director Errol Morris) was making fun of those people. I said I didn't think so, he was just allowing them to dig their own graves (so to speak) and was reveling in their zaniness. Of course, she and I were making fun of them through most of the film. Even our dog was silently mocking them (during the scene where the woman is trying to make her dog sing, our dog had the exact same expression on her face as the wife and I did listening to the insurance salesman talk about motivation and positivity). And we really don't like the guy from the rendering plant: "recycling" indeed. Cinematically, it's nice to see Morris's style almost fully formed: mostly static shots, no narration, people for the most part talking directly into the camera with little apparent prompting. My favorite scene was with the woman sitting in front of her house rambling for what seemed like ten minutes about whatever popped into her head (mostly about her grandson who is either "hauling sand" or "working at the office"); I loved how Morris just let her go on and on. It wasn't malicious (how could you not like her?), but affectionate and playful. The #5 film of 1978.
Ballast - This year's Chop Shop: a low-budget realist indie drama about poor people trying to survive in a very specifically realized location. Whereas that film was cramped by its urban setting, this one allows the rain-soaked beauty of its wintery Mississippi Delta locations to infuse the film with a powerful sense of loneliness and desolation. Despite all that, and like Bahrani's film, there's a strong undercurrent of hope as the film depicts a broken family fitfully reconstructing itself. Michael J. Smith Jr is exceptional as a man who seems too smart for his world and finds this thoroughly depressing, but keeps trudging on despite it all. The #10 film of 2008.
Gone With The Wind - My second time watching this, the first was on VHS almost 15 years ago. Needless to say, high-def on a big screen in a sold out theatre was a much better experience. I liked the movie a whole lot more as well. The first half, up to the intermission, is pretty much perfect, paralleling Scarlett's decline with that of the South during the war. The second half is solid, but less engaging. Because it's stretched out of a greater length of time, it feels more disjointed, but also because the plot doesn't have the clear structure that the war brought to the first. Instead it follows Scarlett's ups and downs in her relationship with Rhett, the impossibly perfect Melanie and the totally lame Ashley.
The acting is uniformly excellent, Gable and McDaniel are exceptional and Vivien Leigh gives what I'm convinced is one of the best performances ever (I always really liked her Blanche DuBois, but she's better here). Fleming's direction is much more fluid than I would have expected, or remember from his other films. The camera is constantly tracking along the massive sets, or swooping in on the characters to heighten the melodrama. It helps keep a four hour movie from ever feeling like a slog.
The biggest eye-opener for me, though, was the Technicolor. I didn't think anything could top what Jack Cardiff and Powell & Pressburger did with The Red Shoes and Black Narcissus, but this film is at least a match for those, and was made almost a decade earlier. From the sunny greens of the open, through the fiery red in the films heart to the icy blues and grays at the climax, the film is never less than stunning. This is moving way up my 1939 list, all the way to #5.