Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Catch-Up Screening Log: July

Alphaville (d. Jean-Luc Godard, 1965) - Mystery/sci-fi hybrid where famous French detective Lemmy Caution (Eddie Constantine) is sent to the utterly logical city of Alphaville to find Dr. Leonard Nosferatu van Braun (Howard Vernon), who developed a super-weapon for them. One of those early post-modern exercises in film, which is both effective and hilarious. The destruction of Alphaville at the end is handled more by implication than effects, but is all the more surprising for it. And Godard does a hilarious deadpan, from the futuristic newspaper name of Figaro-Pravda (he can at least imagine a post-Cold War society) to the utterly perfunctory initial attacks on Caution to the way that interstellar travel is just represented as a car driving down a highway. B+

Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover (d. Larry Cohen, 1977, NIV) - Larry Cohen's ambition severely outstrips his ability in this film. As I've seen more and more Cohen, the less impressed I am with his film-making ability. His shot compositions are very basic (with the exception of one where Hoover, at his favorite restaurant, is framed as to be surrounded by his own reflection). Cohen's script is an amorphous blob; refusing to organize his picture around one era or one theme or even one character (!), Cohen aims for a "greatest hits of Hoover" approach. Poor, under-utilized Rip Torn serves as our on-again, off-again narrator/POV character (who doesn't even show up on screen until 40 minutes into the film!).
Broderick Crawford is amazing as Hoover, managing to bring some gravitas and mystery to a rather unsympathetic character. To Cohen's credit, he tries to position Hoover as an anti-hero with loathsome methods who still shouldered the huge burden of protecting his Bureau from even more loathsome people. Michael Parks as Robert Kennedy is probably the best of the politician impressionists, bothering to suggest a person behind the familiar affect. C-

Walk Hard (d. Jake Kasdan, 2007, NIV) - I really regret not seeing this in theatres now. I watched it in my bedroom on the heels of a bad break-up, and I still laughed uproariously. The screenplay strikes the perfect balance between stupid and clever in the best Airplane! and Top Secret! traditions. It perfectly punctures the pomposity of the biopic, with the prepackaged life story that always follows the same arc. The cast is excellent (Tim Meadows in particular displays a great comic sincerity and innocence totally at odds with what his character is doing) and the cameos are well-deployed. A-

Piranha (d. Joe Dante, 1978) - A great example of what B movie film-making represents at it's best. Although the opening sequence is well handled, and the Jaws video-game is an incredibly clever joke, the next ten minutes are kind of annoying as Bradford Dillman and Heather Menzies are thrown together by over-contrived circumstance and without any regard for the characterization they've established (because young, attractive girls go for paunchy, angry alcoholics all the time where I live). But once it gets past those 10 minutes, the pacing and plotting builds relentlessly and cleverly. The action sequences are well-staged and the caricatures that populate the story are engagingly depicted by a cast of b-movie character actors (Dick Miller, Barbara Steele, Kevin McCarthy). And Dante's visual wit (the escape attempt from the army, the race to stop the dam from venting) helps to lighten the mood. Like a fresh Krispy Kreme donut, you wouldn't want to devour more at one sitting, nor would you make a meal of it. But a fun time and not insulting to the intelligence. B-

Gypsy (d. Mervyn LeRoy, 1962) - A horror movie disguised as a musical, as suggested by one of my favorite blogs, Shadowplay. Rosalind Russell does a great job of portraying someone who has bought into the combined fantasies of show biz and the American Dream, trying to disguise her selfishness as kindness and bulldozing past any attempt at realism with sheer enthusiasm. Karl Malden and Natalie Wood also turn in great performances. Wood in particular deserves commendation for the decidedly tomboyish and defeated posture she carries through most of the film, totally effacing herself with a pitiful anti-charisma. LeRoy's direction marries these performances to a decidedly tactile universe that continually undercuts any attempts at show biz glamor by Rose (the cow head adds a particular grotesqueness, always lingering at the corner of the frame in most scenes). A

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (d. David Yates, 2009, at theater) Do I really need to give a synopsis? Yates does a great job of staging his scenes, so that a glimpse of a by-passed conversation in a quiet scene suddenly explodes into violence a second later. He and the production department also find a nice balance between the magical feeling of Hogwarts and the lived-in aspect that any such place would have. A good, game cast, but Jim Broadbent as Professor Slugworth adds a particular poignance. As a compromised, faded professor drawn to celebrities like a moth to flame, he offers a reminder of fates worse than death or Dementors that Voldemort can offer. B


Leigh Walton said...

I found Slugworth, I mean Slughorn, pretty menacing in the original book, so I was disappointed that Broadbent's Slughorn was fairly sympathetic. I guess the more nuanced reading of him is more interesting, though.

Did he creep me out because I was expecting him to be HP6's version of Professor Umbridge (Meet the new prof, same as the old prof)? Or because I'm especially sensitive to the class snobbery that he represents? Or was he really written to be the total slimeball that I read him to be?

It probably didn't help that I subconsciously visualized him looking like this.

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