Ten recent reviews

I Vitelloni (dir. Federico Fellini, 1953)
A nostalgic look back at boyhood from Fellini? Impossible! OK, maybe not so impossible. In fact, a significant part of his catalog features his memories of provincial youth and this one is perhaps his finest early example of it, centered around a group of friends making that painful transition from their fly-by-night runaround ways into adulthood - most abruptly in the case of Fausto, who is made to marry a young woman he's gotten pregnant instead of following through on his plan of skipping out of town. While they're on honeymoon, the rest of his group scams, schemes, slacks, and dreams big without doing anything about changing their situation. But the specter of their forcibly adult-ed friend hangs over things and they start to worry about really facing up to life. That's basically the thrust of it, though of course in Fellini's hands, he really invests the people with a life that my description lacks. He understands the young, small town dreamers who would like to think they're one big break from turning their lives around and he's in sympathy with their plight, even if he's not uncritical. Before he started making his films into intricate puzzles and three-ring circuses, he made these types of character studies. This is one of the best - possibly the best - of his early works.

Ashes of Time Redux (dir. Wong Kar-Wei, 2008)
Kar-Wei Wong's romantic tangle unwound a bit to be easier to follow and I'm not sure it improves things at all. I found the original version a little tough, but somehow this more circularly organized take on things seems to lose a little of the mystery, even if it's been constructed of the same materials that made up the other version. I liked it the way it was, I guess, even if it meant that I had to come back a few times to really get to the heart of the film. Given Kar-Wei's strengths in constructing multiple layers and multiple timelines in his best works, I'm wondering just why this one ended up being re-worked. It's still a good film and it was a treat to see it again, but I prefer it the way it was.

Ghost Ship (dir. Mark Robson, 1946)
Another solid Val Lewton cheapie that fulfills its ambitions to being a good film, this time without as many of the supernatural/thriller elements that are present in most of his other films of the period. As always, there are 'A' performances from 'B' actors, a script that's way stronger than the unpromising and misleading title would have you believe, and an atmosphere of creepiness even as it works toward a more conventional drama. A seaman takes to a new ship helmed by a notoriously hard captain only to find that he's beyond "hard," he's nuts. But at sea, with the cap'n in charge, what can you do about it? That's the dilemma facing our hero here, and it's done nicely in the film. It's more about how this kind of life can suck out a person's soul, not about said souls returning from the beyond. Maybe less exciting than some of Lewton's other great films of the period, but it's certainly worth seeing.

Ichi the Killer (dir. Takashi Miike, 2001)
I can't figure Miike out. Certainly he's got a flair for the outrageous, and this is by far the most outrageous of his four films that I've seen, but I don't know if he's got anything up his sleeve beyond shock value. I mean, here's a film about a timid and lethal assassin (Ichi), motivated and manipulated by a man tangentially involved in the Yakuza. The second man's motives are dirty, Ichi doesn't exactly draw our sympathy, and the ample time spent with the masochistic Yakuza boss doesn't really draw us into his psyche at all. I guess that's kind of the deal with Miike's films that I've seen - he's got a set of ideas that get no more complex than your average comic book; a character has his simple motivation and that's enough to power the film for him. There's no pathos, nothing believable to grab on to, just a flashy show of violence, blood and guts that's maybe entertaining but hardly something that can make me think much about the characters involved, much less anything beyond the confines of the film.

Tokyo Twilight (dir. Yasujiro Ozu, 1957)
This is as overtly (melo)dramatic as any Ozu I've ever seen. That's not to say that it's not good, just that there are dramatic outbursts onscreen that are uncharacteristic of his work and come off as pretty startling and unexpected. Two sisters - one troubled and pregnant, the other separated from her husband - live with their father while they attempt to sort out their lives and deal with the knowledge that the mother they have long believed is dead may well be alive. I've read complaints about the plot, about the drama, but it doesn't really bother me, the film is still shot beautifully and anything with both Chishu Ryu and Setsuko Hara in it is gonna be worth my time, if perhaps not yours. It's not great, for sure, but it's certainly worth a look, and for those who find his films a little dry, it may even be a good way in to understanding his world better.

Forgetting Sarah Marshall (dir. Nicholas Stoller, 2008)
Shall we just accept that I'm probably going to enjoy everything coming out of Judd Apatow's stable of Freaks & Geeks alumni and move on from there? Let me try for a second to explain why though - the thing that Apatow has fostered in his young group of writers that makes his films exceptional (within the confines of comedies centered around insecure young men) is that he encourages them to make character rather than plot the central focus of the films. And so here we have Jason Segel's variation on his F&G character - a slightly weird and obsessive wounded romantic who wants to get into a good relationship but has some trouble figuring out exactly how to make any headway with the opposite sex or any understanding of how odd he really is. So if the film shows women finding him somehow irresistible when his charms actually seem quite resistible, he's still got charms, like most of the leads in the Apatow films. It was funny for sure (especially Russell Brand's egocentric rock star), I bought the drama with a minimal suspension of disbelief, and I think that there's a good solid grounding in writing character here that makes the film far better than it could've been. Maybe it coulda been cut down a bit, maybe it coulda been sharpened, but I always prefer character-driven films to plot-driven ones, so I might have liked it considerably less if so.

Judgment at Nuremberg (dir. Stanley Kramer, 1961)
An exceptional pair of performances anchor this film to prevent it from becoming too preachy - Burt Lancaster and the great Spencer Tracy both set about giving some of the best work of their careers as (respectively) one of the Nazi judges on trial and the American judge brought in to act as part of the tribunal trying them. (Please note that this is not a slap at the rest of the supporting cast, nearly all of whom do superb work here, just that these two roles call for more from the actors, both of whom rise to the occasion.) Where it could easily have wandered into a mere recreation of Nazi horrors and condemnation of them, it's aiming higher, more broadly about the act of making sure that we do not let these things go once they're supposedly over and done with, ready to be buried. Nearly everyone in the film encourages Tracy's character to let bygones be bygones, drop things and acquit the judges but he persists, he wants to understand especially how a judge like Lancaster's moralist - and by extension anybody - could slide to condemning people to concentration camps from which they'd never emerge. The viewer gets to understand it too, understand that each compromise, each lie told to the self to accomodate things moves everyone closer to the atrocities that are only late in the film explicitly shown. I'm not fan of courtroom dramas, but this one really got me.

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (dir. Michael Powell/Emeric Pressburger, 1943)Another great one from my chronological examination of Powell and Pressburger. Though it is perhaps not quite as exciting as 49th Parallel - and that's fine - it's yet another nuanced character study, which is what makes their films so great, or at least so interesting to me. Maybe it's a little long at 2 1/2 hours, taking time getting to where it's going in fleshing out the people involved, but there's never a scene where it feels like I don't want to be spending time with Blimp, with any of Deborah Kerr's three characters, or with Anton Walbrook's Kretschmar-Schuldorff - they're all so brilliantly drawn and acted that I don't mind that extra time. Anyway, it's a wonderful character study, putting aside even the extraordinary circumstances of the filming. Not as dazzling as I had expected for a wartime epic, but perhaps all the more affecting for the smart portrayals that it puts across that can cut across time like this.

City Lights (dir. Charlie Chaplin, 1931)
I've always found Chaplin just a hair too sentimental for my tastes, even while being fully engaged by his works - love the gags a lot of the time, but am not always on the side of The Tramp, as I think I'm supposed to be. That doesn't apply here. I found this brilliant throughout, totally engrossed and drawn in to the story beginning to end. The boxing scene in particular is great - I'd seen it before out of context and loved it then - but really, the bittersweet romance, the ups and downs with his friend the drunken millionaire, the ambiguous ending, they all add up to the most consistently entertaining and emotionally engaging of his films that I've seen yet. Helps too that I saw it with the Colorado Symphony performing the score live along with the film. Somehow Gold Rush and Modern Times both seem to have eclipsed this in the Chaplin canon and I don't know why, I think it's the best of the three, and though I haven't seen his entire catalog of full lengths I can't imagine them getting better than this. But unlike the reactions I had to the other two films just mentioned this one has made me really want to make it a priority to see them.

Katyn (dir. Andrzej Wajda, 2007)
Bringing an event heretofore not very public, especially something on the scale of the massacre that forms the main event of this film, almost automatically lends itself to a powerful cinematic adaptation. But it is at times too automatic as filmmaking, letting the event and story itself carry the weight of the film. There's no doubt that this was an event that partially defined the Polish experience of WWII (you can get a hint of its significance just by a quick look at the numerous Polish reviews on IMDB) - an entire generation of Polish officers are rounded up via a secret pact between the Nazis and the Russian army, then executed and buried in mass graves in the Katyn forest, an event later blamed by each entity by the other - but I found that it failed to draw me in the way a film trading in such heavily emotional material should have, relying not on Wajda's skills, but expecting story alone to carry it. In this, it's like dozens of films before it - a well-made, strong but curiously uninvolving film about a weighty, meaningful subject that means a lot to everyone who made it. The seriousness that the film has put across confers a lot of gravity to audiences, but despite fine cinematography, good performances, and a crafty script that juggles several timelines, I find that I'd rather go to his war films of the 50's and read a book about this topic.


Dex said...

miike's best stuff - which i would include 'ichii' a part of - subverts japanese genre standards; for example, his late 90s-early 00s yakuza stuff dips into the suppressed homoeroticism and sexual frustration miike sees in the japanese gangster film (every male character in 'ichii' are wrapped up in their own bodies in a very focused, masturbatory way, from the piercings to the older, pumped up guy, and ichii's whole drive to be an assassin his part of a sexual neurosis). 'gozu' incorporates similar sexual themes, but dressed up as a buddhist ghost story.

his other biggies, like 'audition' and 'happiness of the katakuris' play with societal and genre conventions too. i wanna say he's a satirist, but that might not be the right word...little help, amber?

Atrain said...

I distinctly remember hearing snoring coming from my right side somewhere between the boxing scene and the mopping of elephant poop. Is that omission reviewed here?