Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Movie Roundup - Last Life In The Universe, Murder My Sweet, Gilda

Last Life In The Universe - A possibly suicidal Japanese librarian (he keeps failing to kill himself) hangs out with a Thai girl after his brother and her sister are killed. He's an obsessive compulsive neatfreak while she's a pot-smoking slob. He spends a couple days cleaning up her house (right by the beach), they fall in love and are separated and learn a lot about life and love and all that. Neither one speaks the other's language, so they spend most of their time communicating in English, and eventually each of them spends some time transformed into their deceased sibling, both of whom are cultural stereotypes (Japanese yakuza and Thai prostitute). It's Harold & Maude with the gap the lovers overcome being culture instead of age. It's a beautiful movie, some of Christopher Doyle's finest cinematography, though it's totally different than his work with Wong Kar-wai. It looks more like Danny Boyle circa Trainspotting. It's the only film I've seen by director Pen-Ek Ratanaruang, though his film 6ixtynin9 has gone right into the queue. The #2 film of 2003.

Murder, My Sweet - Edward Dmytryk's adaptation of raymond Chandler's Farewell, My Lovely stars Dick Powell as the detective Philip Marlowe. It's an odd choice for a hard-boiled film noir, as Powell was mostly known for his work in light musical comedies, and he doesn't entirely pull off Marlowe, at least not as I imagine him (that'd be Humphrey Bogart in the Big Sleep) but he's not bad. Marlowe's hired by a bulky thug to find his missing girlfriend and manages to get himself mixed up with a wealthy family that's being blackmailed. He gets beat up, a lot, which leads to one of the more unfortunate parts of the film, a cheesy pool of blackness that fills the screen every time Marlowe gets knocked unconscious (this many concussions in such a short period of time can be extremely dangerous, by the way, even if you're a hockey player) that was apparently greeted with guffaws when the film eventually played in Paris. More successful is a hallucination sequence when Marlowe's forcibly injected with heroin for some inexplicable reason. But really, the main attraction here is the Chandler dialogue. A nice, summarizing example: "'Okay Marlowe,' I said to myself. 'You're a tough guy. You've been sapped twice, choked, beaten silly with a gun, shot in the arm until you're crazy as a couple of waltzing mice. Now let's see you do something really tough - like putting your pants on.'"

Gilda - Another mediocre film noir, this one featuring a superstar-making performance by Rita Hayworth as the title object of desire. Much like in Paul Thomas Anderson's Hard Eight (#8, 1996), a young gambler is adopted by an older man and shown how to survive. This time it's Glenn Ford who's taken in by George Macready's Buenos Aires casino owner and would-be tungsten magnate. Things fall apart, as they must, when a woman gets involved, Hayworth in this case, Macready's new bride and Ford's ex-girlfriend. There's more than just a hint of a homosexual relationship between Ford and Macready that isn't exactly minimize by the hostility with which Ford treats Hayworth throughout the entire run of the film. Even after Macready fakes his death and he and Hayworth get married, he proceeds to lock her up in an apartment to punish her for her mistreatment of his "friend". Of course, they all live heterosexually ever after, but we know what's really going on. Hayworth, by the way, is as advertised, especially in her famous striptease in which all she manages to remove is a single glove. But I think she looked better in The Lady From Shanghai.

Movie Roundup- After Life, The Producers, Limelight, Gertrud

After Life - In the tradition of Stairway To Heaven and Defending Your Life, Kore-eda Hirokazu's film has an odd take on what happens when you die. Instead of angels or demons, you get civil servants, who live in a big mansion and make you pick one memory from your life to take with you. After three days of memory picking, the staff makes the memory into a movie. Once you watch the movie, you go off to spend eternity with your favorite memory. It's a quirky little film, with a light humanistic touch and obvious affection for its characters. It isn't an especially profound movie: there are hints at a Rashomon-like idea that people can't tell the truth, even to themselves, as a few characters can't help but embellish or misremember their own lives, but it doesn't really go anywhere. There's also a vaguely translated theme about choosing a single memory from your life as a way to "take responsibility" for that life, but I don't think I know what that's supposed to mean, so maybe it's me that isn't all that profound. . . . Anyway, despite it's slow pace and low-key style, the movie never fails to be both interesting and entertaining. The #9 film of 1998.

The Producers - Between the musical, the movie of the musical and the whole season of Curb Your Enthusiasm devoted to it, it was pretty much impossible for me to get anything new out of finally getting around to watching this movie. basically, watching it for the first time was like watching it for the 12th time, I knew all the jokes and the whole plot, so I can't even say if it was funny or not. I imagine it is though. I enjoyed the hysterical performance by Gene Wilder and the ridiculous cuteness of Lee Meredith and was disturbed by the similarity of Dick Shawn's performance as the Hitler-playing hippie to Robin Williams, especially in his stand-up. The #9 film of 1968.

Limelight - Charlie Chaplin plays an aging drunk vaudevillian who can't get work anymore who saves Claire Bloom, a neighboring ballet dancer, from killing herself. Her nurses her back to health, teaches her that life's worth living, and helps make her a huge star. In turn, she thinks she falls in love with him and tries to revive his career. It all ends with a gala vaudeville show, complete with Chaplin and Buster Keaton combining for a very funny performance. I've always been a little put-off by Chaplin's sentimentality, Modern Times is my favorite of his silent films over City Lights and The Gold Rush for that reason, and I've always preferred Keaton (it's like an Elvis/Beatles thing I guess). But Chaplin is always so honest about his sentimentality that it's really hard to criticize him for it. He may be a big ball of cheese, but he never tries to hide it, and you've got to respect that.

Gertrud - I've seen two movies by Carl Theodor Dreyer, and they couldn't be more different. The Passion Of Joan Of Arc is a silent, highly stylized, visually exciting movie highlighted by a brilliant performance by Maria Falconetti in the lead role. Gertrud, on the other hand, is all talk, fairly static and dull visually (though the camera does move, its movements aren't exactly exciting, and there is some interesting stuff in the mise-en-scene, specifically a rococo mirror and a dream turned into a tapestry) with some very odd acting by all of the actors. The film seems to consist of long scenes of the actors making monotone speeches while not looking at each other. Gertrud leaves her husband, a successful politician, for a young composer. The next day at a party, her old boyfriend tells her the composer was bragging about sleeping with her the night before at another party at the home of a courtesan. So, she leaves all three men and goes off to Paris to hang out with a gang of psychiatrists. It's an emotionally intense film, made in such an alienating way that it'd be really easy to make fun of. The style is extreme to that point that it's almost a parody of the European art movie of the 60s, which is, I assume, the reason it wasn't particularly well-received when it first came out.

Movie Roundup - King Kong, United 93, Centre Stage

King Kong - Finally got around to watching this as Netflix decided it had been out long enough for a frequent movie watcher like me to be allowed to see it. The special effects are as advertised, it's a beautiful film, more so than any of the Lord Of The Rings movies in fact. Naomi Watts is terrific and Jack Black's not too bad either. However, instead of thinking the movie was too long, as most commentators seem to, I think it was actually too short. I dug all the set-up in Act One, especially the idea that this trip to skull island to make this movie is fate, totally out of their control. The little subplots on the boat didn't work for me at all: the kid and the first mate, the Captain not wanting to got to the island, blah. Once they get on the island, everything's great again: spooky natives, cool effects, a lot of fun action (though does anyone else wonder why these people never get lost on that island?). It's Act Three that I have a problem with. None of the interesting themes for Act One are revived or concluded, it all becomes subservient to the (admittedly spectacular) action and the pseudo-love story. The final scenes at the top of the Empire State Building even managed to trigger my fear of heights, which kind of ruined the romance, I guess. A summary of some plot holes: there's no explanation of why Watts and Adrian Brody are separated at the beginning of Act Three, after he spent the previous hour and a half fighting dangerous computer beasts to rescue her from the giant ape; there's no explanation for why the cowardly actor came to deus ex machina them back on the island (and where's his moustache?); there's no further elaboration, or even mention of the destiny theme. Maybe in a year Peter jackson will release the 5 hour director's cut and I'll be satisfied. As is, the movie has everything in common with Titanic but the massive box office gross: it's big, pretty and simple. The #18 film of 2005.

United 93 - Is this movie any good? The better question is is it possible for this movie to be good? What would a good movie about 9/11 look like? Paul Greengrass seems to think that a verité-style approach is appropriate. We get fly on the wall views of the events on the plane, intercut with scenes in various air traffic and military control centers. This style, and various comments about the film in advertising and some reviews, and the total lack of outside context in the film (no resolution, no mention of anything that happens after the plane goes down) seem to indicate a desire to take no political position on the events in order to avoid offending anyone, to not be seen as exploiting a tragedy for political purposes. However, I don't think it's even possible to make a film (certainly not a film like this) without being political, and Greengrass does seem to drive home the unpreparedness and inefficiency of our disaster-response system ("Where is the President?"). The idea that a film should be made of events like this at all is questionable: reducing a very real and very human tragedy to an anecdote, a simple narrative or even worse, and action movie is intrinsically distasteful. But at least when it's made with a political purpose, such a narrative has some kind of larger purpose. Without that, the narrative is just an action story, the real human tragedy is reduced to, well, a movie. It's similar to the Schindler's List argument: the quality of the film as a film necessarily trivializes the real experience of 9/11 or the Holocaust. At least if the narrative has some kind of context or political agenda, the skill in telling it can be seen as a means to education and the prevention of further tragedies. As is, this film, by doing everything it can to be non-political (and necessarily failing) does nothing to further or deepen our understanding of 9/11 and what it means. The best we can take out of it is sympathy and admiration for the collective hero of the airplane's passengers. But did we really need a movie to show us how heroic those people were? If so, doesn't that say something horrible about us and the way we deal with reality? Is it not really real until we've seen the movie (and wasn't 9/11 cinematic enough the first time)? Anyway, I don't think we've had a great film about 9/11 yet, but when we do I'm certain it'll look a lot more than Fahrenheit 911 than United 93.

Centre Stage - A funky biopic about Chinese silent film star Ruan Ling-yu played by Maggie Cheung and directed by Stanley Kwan. Ruan killed herself at age 25 after only a few years of making movies, most of which no longer exist. After reading Jonathan Rosenbaum rave about it in his Essential Cinema book (where it's called Actress, a much better title), I snagged it from Netflix. Problem is the Region 1 copy of the movie sucks. The subtitles are bad and absent at inconvenient times, the transfer is really bad and apparently 20 minutes have been cut out of the film. As is, there's enough to see what Rosenbaum dug about the film: Kwan mixes archival footage of the silent films with Cheung reenacting those same film scenes and interviews with actors in the film and some of the people they're portraying mixed with dramatic recreations of scenes from Ruan's life. Incoherence is a necessary part of the film because there are so many gaps in what we know of Ruan's life, but the cuts take it to far (not too mention that a key newspaper headline remains untranslated, not being able to read Chinese, I have no idea what the tabloids were attacking her about right before she killed herself. Seems like whoever subtitled this film would have thought that might be important. . . . Recognizing that it's incomplete, I'll rate it the #21 film of 1992.