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Friday, June 26, 2009

Screening Log: June

Just to make sure I keep posting on a regular basis, I've decided to start recording the movies I've seen. I'm borrowing the format/idea from Forager Blog, who, if I remember it correctly, borrowed it from someone else (though I can't find the post). None of this is a comprehensive discussion of the movies I've seen, just things that struck me. Unlike him, I'm using a A through F grading scale. A is amazing (i.e. I'd put this on my list of favorite films), B is well-done (worthwhile viewing, no matter what your specific preferences), C is acceptable, with noteworthy elements, D is poorly done and boring, F is awful (but occasionally awful in a redeeming way).

So:
The Comfort of Strangers (d. Paul Schrader, 1990, DVD) - Adapted by Harold Pinter from a novel by Ian McEwan. Rupert Everett and Natasha Richardson are English tourists visiting Venice, who run across a mysterious and charming couple played by Christopher Walken and Helen Mirren. Wonderful script that plays up the terrifying elements of the most banal, normal things, and the Venetian shooting locations really add both a menace and a thrill to everything. The cast is uniformly wonderful (between this and Cemetery Man, I really wish Rupert Everett did more horror). However, it's a sweet spot of Schrader and Pinter's hobby horses, and neither of them are doing everything that original, even though they do it well. Climax doesn't measure up the menace and weirdness established before. B-

The Man from Laramie (d. Anthony Mann, 1955, TV) Jimmy Stewart is hunting down the man who sold Apaches the rifles that killed his brother, and Donald Crisp is an aging cattle baron who might be responsible. It's the Duke of Gloucester plot from King Lear, set in the old West. Arthur Kennedy is particularly good as Crisp's hired hand and would-be adopted son, all competence and reason with an undercurrent of desperation. Beautifully shot, most of the violence is speedy and fascinatingly one-sided. As soon as things come to blows, the issue is usually decided. The tacked-on happy ending lets some of the air out of the balloon. And Stewart's romance with Cathy O'Donnell has no chemistry. A-

Punisher: War Zone (d. Lexi Alexander, 2008, DVD) - Third Punisher movie, third reboot, probably the one that comes closest to working. The Punisher (Ray Stevenson) is on a hunt for criminals, specifically Jigsaw (Dominic West) and his brother (Doug Hutchinson). No plot really beyond that. The screenwriter and director seem to understand that Punisher stories are about people doing nasty things to each other, in occasionally comic ways. Someone's face is literally pummeled into his skull. Another criminal is shot out of the sky with a rocket launcher as he jumps from building to building. The actors are mostly flailing around between cypher, hammy and wooden, with the exception of Stevenson and West. The plot doesn't even make sense. But the cinematography is both painstaking and hilariously over-the-top. The film's final shot is the best summation of the character I have ever seen. C -

The Tales of Hoffman (d. Powell & Pressburger, 1951, DVD) - Fairy tale writer ETA Hoffman (Robert Rounsenville) finds his attempts at romance blocked at every turn by the bureaucrat Lindorf (Robert Helpmann) or one of his stand-ins. A movie version of the Offenbach opera, but not a filmed opera performance. The libretto is okay, the music not to my taste. But all the actors are marvelous with great physical presence (Moira Shearer and Helpmann are the stand-outs) and the mise-en-scene in this film is a fore-runner to both the OCD perfection of P.T Anderson and the over-the-top fantastic of Frank Miller/Zach Snyder/Robert Rodriguez. Every fantasy/sci-fi/comic book artist in the world must wish they were that good. An optimistic fantasy-romance with one of the most brutal endings I've ever seen. A -

Death Walks at Midnight (d. Luciano Ercoli, 1972, DVD) - Nieves Navarro is a fashion model who remembers witnessing a murder while on drugs. Problem is, the murder was already solved by the police, but the crime doesn't fit her memories. Like most gialli, the acting is unconvincing (though better in Italian than in the English dub). Beautiful camera-work, with special attention paid to what is occurring in the edges of the frame. Extra credit to the screenwriters, who take what seems like a shaggy dog story and show that there is a rhyme and reason to what is happening. You will not be able to predict what happens next, but you don't feel as if the film-makers cheated. C+

Ransom (d. Ron Howard, 1996, Netflix Instant Viewing) - Mel Gibson and Rene Russo's kid is kidnapped, and the kidnapper's ringleader is a cop (Gary Sinise). This is the one where Gibson makes the ransom money into the bounty, remember? Ron Howard's direction is only competent, but the script and performances ground it and add tension up through the third act. At that point, the action movie cliches finally overwhelm careful detail and specifics. Gary Sinise deserves special credit for constructing such a perversely evil character which he never apologizes for. Case in point: an amazing monologue delivered over a voice-scrambled walkie talkie as he leads Gibson to the money-drop. Also the one sequence where Howard shines, as he uses shadows and lights on a NY expressway for all they are worth. B- for first 3 quarters, C- for the whole

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

We are all interested in the future, for that is where you and I are going to spend the rest of our lives

If you'd asked me three years ago, I would have said that I would never enjoy the Grateful Dead or Steely Dan.

Now I find I'm actually getting into both of them. I wonder if anyone else has noticed how much the Hold Steady owe to Steely Dan ("Kid Charlemagne" vs. "Charlemagne in Sweatpants", anyone?). As for the Dead, I'm not exactly listening to their concerts or jams, but some of their bluesier numbers like "Ship of Fools" or some of their Dylan numbers have a nice country-rock The Band vibe to them.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

"You got the most in you, and you use the least. You hear me, you? Got a million in you and spend pennies"

Read The Stars My Destination tonight. 

Alfred Bester wrote a great sci-fi novel that just stretches well past both his era and our era.

I find it so humbling and disappointing to find something so great. Because now there is one less great thing to find and one more thing to match myself against.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

She's Lost Control... of France

Just finished watching Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette, which I really liked. There's something about the way she deploys anachronism in the film to mess with the audience's heads.

I think the decision to play against costume drama really works. The '80s music cues, the lack of Costume Drama dialogue (or pretentious classical drama delivery) and an impressionistic structure that mostly works from the POV of Marie Antoinette all serve to distance the viewer from getting lost in the romance of nostalgia while at the same time keeping us from condemning her as a tool of an oppressive regime. The biggest take-away of this film is that whether Marie was good or bad didn't matter, because the arena she actually had control over had only the most tangential relationship. There's a very telling moment early on in the film when one of Marie's hangers-on gossips that Madame du Barry (Asia Argento) is political because she refuses to reign only in the boudoir.

The movie functions as an amazing bait-and-switch, because it is only in the last twenty minutes that Coppola starts pulling the rug out from under us and Antoinette. For the first three quarters of the film, it's a coming-of-age/romance that we think we're watching and that Antoinette seems to think she's living in (notice how much her life is constructed around consumption and artifice). Then her portraits start getting vandalized and you start hearing the angry crowds. And the rest is literally history. How often do we think we're living one story and it turns out we're only supporting characters in another one?

Compare this to Alex Cox's Walker, where the anachronisms and ironies feel heavily italicized, or Anthony Mann's Reign of Terror, where you can mostly feel the actor and director getting uneasy any time it moves away from its weird noir moments and back into historical drama. Coppola strikes a good balance without losing focus or falling apart, and she's assembled a game, if eclectic cast (Asia Argento! Marianne Faithfull! Rip Torn! Steve Coogan!). So yeah, I'd recommend checking it out, provided you don't prefer Serious Costume Drama. Those movies have their place, but we won't run short of them any time soon.