Ten recent reviews

The Old Dark House (dir. James Whale, 1932) -

James Whale finds a nice balance of creepy and comic here, with breezy dialogue and jovial mood underscoring a nice, eerie performance by Lon Chaney. Problem for me is that it's too breezy - does it want to be a scary "old dark house" movie or an eccentric comedy of errors? Whale does find the line to keep it on so that it remains both right up until the disturbing final movement. Still... a movie called The Old Dark House really does deserve to feature more menace than simply odd behavior until its final act if you ask me, and I was left a little wanting by this, breezy script, good performances and all. My problem, not his.

Chop Shop (dir. Ramin Bahrani, 2007) -

Almost documentary in its shooting style and thematic content, but instead it's another film along the lines of Los Olvidados or Pixote about kids living a tough, gritty life on the streets. What it shares with them is an unflinching view at some hard decisions these kids have to make merely to survive, but where it differs is the sense of hope in the film, more or less non-existent in the earlier films and more in common in that with City of God, for example. Violence is all but absent from the picture, though it's still a dramatic enough story that the tension that could lead to it is always hovering around the edges of the frame. Remarkable performances from Alejandro Polanco and Isamar Gonzales as the brother and sister with naive aspirations to get out of their situation. I'll leave the rest up to you to see. It's pretty damn brilliant though.

Top Hat (dir. Mark Sandrich, 1935) -

An absolute delight, beginning to end. Songs don't stop the movie cold to have people suddenly start a number, they actually grow out of the dialogue, and having Astaire play a dancer is a great stroke, gives him a good reason to be dancing whenever he feels like it. And the songs are excellent, dancing is excellent - as might be expected. What is not necessarily expected is that the script and the acting - comedic acting, I mean - are also excellent. They're not just funny for a musical, they're just funny, period. Great plot movement around misunderstandings and bad communication - a comic staple - and sharp, snappy dialogue help make it. My only regret is that most accounts place this at the top of the Rogers/Astaire pile, so it feels like I have nowhere to go but down. Except for maybe the highly regarded Swing Time.

Jarhead (dir. Sam Mendes, 2005) -

You can have your war film checklist handy when watching this as they tick off references to Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket, to MASH - it's basically an amalgam of a lot of war films. I wonder how much of Anthony Swofford's memories and detail of the film were influenced by his familiarity with those films. Or maybe the screenwriter adapted his writing as he'd seen in other films. Or maybe director Sam Mendes - not my favorite guy in Hollywood, I have to say - decided that the visual and dialogue references would help bring this otherwise very odd "war" film home to its audiences more readily. I don't know, but they were distracting for me. The crux of the film is about the mental and emotional pressures these kids in an elite group of snipers are put under in a war where the skill is more or less obsolete. Build the tension, go through the basic army training, but then have these guys mostly sit around with nothing to do except masturbate or talk about masturbating and basically be on alert to pop off at a moment's notice - but that moment never comes. It's an interesting idea for a film that I don't feel is explored fully in the film which relies too hard, as noted, on now-cliched scenes of training, on banal dialogue, on the skill of its actors to convey the sense of tension that script and direction only momentarily give up. I guess it provides a convincing enough picture, but I felt like it was lacking the full depth of psychological drama that the subject material deserved.

Withnail & I (dir. Bruce Robinson, 1987) -
The script is a perfect autobiographical labor of love from writer/director Bruce Robinson - maybe too perfect. Felt like I had to listen intently for every single perfectly crafted word. The movie's funny as hell - touching, even - but it requires some dedication from the viewer to catch everything. Not in the plot, of course, which involves a lot of drinking, but in the dialogue, which fires out quip after quip that's worth quoting - no surprise that the film has quote-happy cult following like This Is Spinal Tap or Monty Python and the Holy Grail. And of course that's what makes a cult film, the sort of perfect little lines that you want to come back to again and again. Which I'm sure I will, since like any really great cult comedy it's also well made and totally serious in its intention to make you laugh. It's also a film I ended up reflecting on a lot while reading a William Kotzwinkle book a friend loaned me - The Fan Man - featuring another sort of comic-pathetic wastoid as our "hero." I enjoyed it quite a bit, but I need to watch again with sound up louder and distractions (like a summer fan, or someone snoring in the room) at an absolute minimum.

A Story of Floating Weeds (dir. Yasujiro Ozu, 1934) -

Silent-era Ozu in which - guess what - two generations of a family have their differences. But here things are a bit different indeed. Instead of the typical Ozu nuclear family falling apart, these floating weeds are a traveling acting troupe, the leader of which has been to the rural town setting of the film nearly 20 years before and left a local woman with a surprise. Now he's rolling through with his troupe, suffering financial hardships and visiting (and accepting patronage from) the woman he didn't marry because his lifestyle could neither be bound to a rural town nor support a wife. He's also visiting and offering anonymous support to the young man who doesn't know who his father is, or rather, has been raised to believe that his father died years ago. It all makes for a familial drama with situations and dialogue so universal, or at least understandable, that the film could've been made yesterday, not the 74 years ago (!) that it actually was made. I feel almost embarrassed gushing yet again over the stunning compositions and absolutely true-to-life drama as I have with a half-dozen other Ozus in the last few months, but the guy really was a genius. Great stuff, again.

Why Does Herr R Run Amok? (dir. Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1970) -

One of the best early Fassbinders, maybe the best. It's funny in a way because instead of signifying via his character's behavior or dialogue that Herr R. is living a boring life, he shows you just how boring it is, in more or less real time. Trite dialogue about nothing and stretched out (though realistically rendered) scenes show Raab at work, sitting quietly and passively at a gathering of relatives, drunk and foolish at a company holiday party - the mundanity of his life is almost too much to handle at times. And then, abruptly and with no warning signs whatsoever, he runs amok, causing you to reflect on what's happened, to search your mind for triggers, for conflicts that could've provoked the brutal ending of the film. And the answers are not forthcoming - there's no easy answer here of "embarrassing situation with the boss caused this" or "friction with the wife caused this" or anything so readily pat to explain things. I loved it, and the pain and boredom of watching the non-events leading up to the ending is all part of the package, albeit not even remotely entertaining or infused with the melodramatic Sirkian or overtly Brechtian overtones of much of Fassbinder's catalog.

Accattone (dir. Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1961) -
Pasolini's debut feature film is a remarkably assured outing outlining pretty much everything he was to embark on in his later filmmaking career. I watched this in anticipation of the re-release of Salo and I have to say that while he developed as a filmmaker, I haven't seen a better film from him than this one, in which he follows the life of a self-assured and proud pimp (the title character), taken only halfway seriously by the other pimps and criminals he consorts with and taken not at all seriously by his main whore. It's also quite brutal and grim in a sort of neo-realistic way; a nasty beating is delivered to a naive prostitute, Accattone seemingly thinks nothing of stealing a gold necklace from a child, of unceremoniously dumping one whore when she refuses to give him respect. It's a tragedy in the classical sense, not surprising given his affinity for classical literature and his constant affinity for people of the lower class and the outsider world of criminals. A great debut signaling a great career.

Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (dir. Sam Peckinpah, 1973) -

Elegaic and enjoyable Peckinpah about the dying breed of "real men" in the Old West - men who value honor and a quick gun over just about anything else, including the law, which is seemingly only an arbitrary divider between men of principle. Garrett and Billy are both clinging to a dying way of life, most famously when Kris Kristofferson (as Billy) responds to Garrett's observation that times are changing with "Times maybe. Not me." A perfect summation in four words of what Peckinpah is all about. This film doesn't break any new ground for Sam, but it'll please anyone who's a fan, and perhaps also interest those who aren't.

Brand Upon the Brain! (dir. Guy Maddin, 2006) -

A weird one. I don't know why I suddenly got excited to watch this, but I did and was glad to have attended to it, even if I didn't love it. A heavy David Lynch influence in addition to the obvious love (and understanding) of silent film conventions plus Guy Maddin's own strange blend of sexuality, familial issues, and gender ambiguity all add up to an intriguing story that like a lot of avant-garde art may live more readily in the artist's head than on the screen (or whatever medium). That Maddin does make it intriguing is an accomplishment worth seeing. I don't know how this stacks up with the rest of his catalog, but I'm interested enough to find out.


Joaquin said...

I'm dying to see Top Hat and yes, Jarhead was a huge, but expected letdown.

I've never even heard of Herr R, but it sounds fascinating. I'll have to bump it up my queue.

BTW, have you heard anything about this year's Denver Art Museum Fall Film Series? It's curiously missing from their website and I haven't seen a schedule anywheres. What's the deal?

nervenet said...

Sadly, they have discontinued the film series, which I have attended more or less religiously for about 6 years now. I received a postcard about it about six weeks ago from Tom DeLapa, the museum's film curator. Bummer.

Joaquin said...

Tragic yes, surprising no. Word on the street is Neighborhood FLIX is in danger too. :(