Ten recent reviews

Grand Hotel (dir. Edmund Goulding, 1932) -
Excellent ensemble drama, with Garbo fine enough, but even her role as a diva ballerina is upstaged here by both John Barrymore and Joan Crawford in less flashy roles given sharper dialogue. But this one's more about ensemble acting than any individual's role, fine as many of those individuals may be. A ritzy hotel in Berlin is the epicenter of several stories that intertwine and tangle together, including the two most compelling: that of a refined thief after a wealthy (and moody) ballerina's jewels, and a secretary who can't stand the businessman she works for but is too professional to let him realize it. Drama and comedy build out of there, both pretty damn brilliantly, I might add, with neither one taking the dominant role in the proceedings, each always making room for the other. It's just another great one from Golden Age Hollywood, and this is the sort of film that helps you understand why it's called that.

Phantom (dir. F.W. Murnau, 1922) -
Like Val Lewton's Ghost Ship, I could not hide my initial disappointment over the fact that I was watching a film by an acknowledged master of suspense, horror, and the otherworldly and the current viewing had nothing to do with dead spirits. But just as with Lewton's film, this one won me over with its drama of a deluded would-be poet lead on by a mentor to believe that he's a surefire success and can proceed directly from dire poverty to the high life. Needless to say, things don't work out as planned, and Murnau's expressionistic approach to showing the poor guy's mental collapse (OK, it's not quite as extreme as that) is fine filmmaking. Don't go in looking for a sinister follow-up to Nosferatu and you'll do just fine.

Let the Right One In (dir. Tomas Anderson, 2008) -
As with any film combining vampire mythology and coming-of-age stories - oh wait, there aren't any beside this one! That alone of course is not reason to praise this and for a good half hour of the film I wasn't sure I liked it, but as it adds on layers, gets to know both central character and vampire better, as it reveals its sly sense of humor, I really got there with it. The visual sense of the film is probably my least favorite aspect - it's somewhat cold and flat, though that's also something of the tone of the drama for the first portion, so I guess it's fitting. Let me rephrase - a vampire film/coming-of-age story shot like a police procedural film imbued with a subtle humor that masks the cold reality of the central relationship is what the film promises. And accomplishes nicely I'd say. A good one.

Il Bidone (dir. Federico Fellini, 1955) -
Broderick Crawford is the best part of the film - the sorta leader of a group of hustlers who mostly prey on hicks in the rural regions who fall for their shenanigans. I wish Fellini had taken the time to develop his relationship with his daughter more - it provides such a turning point for his character that it feels a little underbaked to me. Crawford makes the best of what little screen time he has across from her though, saying almost enough just with his pained look that maybe if Fellini had even just lingered on him with one more heartbroken shot it might have made the whole third act development totally believable for me. Even so, I can accept it in the context of the film and move on - it's very nearly an excellent film even in spite of this. Maybe this is why he stopped relying on plot to move his characters around, realized that they were interesting enough in his hands that we're fine just spending the time being around them and that their problems got through to us by osmosis without having to be spelled out.

The Cars That Ate Paris (dir. Peter Weir, 1974) -
Part of Weir's weird (not-exactly)-trilogy, preceding both Picnic at Hanging Rock and The Last Wave and far stranger than either. Far less successful, too, though certainly not for lack of ambition. Here's a film about a small town in a remote area of Australia where the entire GNP of the town seems to stem from running strangers off the road and salvaging their belongings, lobotomizing those who happen to survive the "accidents." That's quite enough for a weird little film, but Weir wants more - there's some sort of odd, 18th century quality to the way things are run in the town with its paternal mayor; there's an undeveloped story in which said mayor wants to "adopt" one of the survivors as his own, possibly grooming him for future leadership of the town's enterprise; and there's also a brewing conflict between the town's elders and the rambunctious youth of the town who participate in the running of things, but seem to be brewing their own Mad Max styled gang of costumed thugs and souped-up vehicles loaded with weapons (though this precedes George Miller's film by about 5 years). I mean, it's not that it's not an interesting mix of ideas, it's just that they never jell into a cohesive whole - it'd be nice if Weir picked one of these ideas and ran with it, saving the others for future films or just paring it down to the strongest stuff and letting it lie. Fun, sure, and really strange, but not great - Weir got better quickly.

Shadows (dir. John Cassavetes, 1959) -
Same year as Breathless, much of the same hand-held immediacy, ground-level realism, and somewhat amateur charm, though Cassavetes still wants you to remain within his drama - no Brechtian address to the audience to remind you you're watching a film. Also no Raoul Coutard to aestheticize the experience, making it - for me - impact that much more. I've seen Breathless maybe twenty times and I still think it's a revolutionary piece of work, seen this only once and I'm absolutely blown away that in a completely separate country, with a different set of principles - though one that very well could have been informed by the writings of the Cahiers du Cinema crowd - Cassavetes and his group have made a work equally revolutionary, every bit as important, and, to be frank, considerably humbler about being such a breakthrough and also refreshingly devoid of Godard's hang-ups about women. I've loved the later Cassavetes films I've seen, but this one's the one that set his shit all in motion. I don't come to this to bury Godard, but I expect to be re-watching this one a lot more for some time.

Orphans of the Storm (dir. D.W. Griffith, 1921) -
Two sisters torn apart in Revolutionary France - makes for a great Griffith film that allows a large canvas for huge scenes (the Revolutionary aspects) and small, personalized touches (meaning the persons of the characters, not so much Griffith's own emotional investment). It's a compelling story, smartly rendered and beautifully shot. Plus, Lillian and Dorothy Gish are superb in the title roles - hard to say one is better than the other because they're both fantastic. It's loaded with beautiful moments too, the kinds of images that stick with you in a way only film can. Historical accuracy may go out the window in favor of the story he wanted to tell, but I for one am in favor of never letting the truth get in the way of a good story. Or a great one.

Slumdog Millionaire (dir. Danny Boyle, 2008) -
Let me keep this short, because I could easily go on about it. I've seen a lot of good and even great films about poor kids living in the streets. This would not rank in or probably even near my top ten of such films, despite reasonably good performances and cinematography. The primary reason it will not is because the story sinks into tediousness for about an hour in the middle - forgetting even about the "destiny" conceit that I knew immediately I was going to just have to swallow as soon as it surfaced. Did it earn the big ending that made the audience break out into applause? No, it absolutely did not earn it, betraying the audience by offering up some decent scenes early on and then winding through a whole lot of nothing until the big ending that apparently caused spontaneous applause amongst many audience members. I don't like reacting to or against hype, I like to just watch a film for its own merits. But the excess of hype around this on invites some reaction - about the film all I can say is "Blah."

The Innocents (dir. Jack Clayton, 1961) -
Now here's the ghost story I wanted both Phantom and Ghost Ship to be! It's good like a filmed ghost story should be, all Gothic design and creepy atmosphere and canted angles and two terrifically cast little kids who must have set the tone for all those dumb "creepy ghost kid voice" films that have come pouring out of Hollywood these days. And this one goes even a notch better than most ghost stories by making it ambiguous - if you can tell me with any certainty that there are ghosts in this film and that it's not all in Deborah Kerr's character's head, you win a special prize. I know that Turn of the Screw makes it clear, but I think the ambiguity here is a strength of the film that is perhaps lacking in the Gothic love story of the novel. It's not perfect, but it's exactly what I wanted.

Edvard Munch (dir. Peter Watkins, 1974) -
Better, I think than the angrily lefty Punishment Park in that it couches its politics - largely concerning women's equality - in a story ostensibly about something else entirely. I also love the structure - a 3+ hour biography about the Norwegian painter Munch intersperses real biographical information alongside speculative dramatic recreations of his life in a mixed up chronology that's shot in documentary style, as though these cameras were present at all the formative moments of his life. But again, I reiterate - while it tells you a lot about Munch, it also tells you as much about the women in his life, their lot in the world and how both the reactionary forces of conservative society and the surprisingly conservative art world Munch travelled in spoke out against strong and independent-minded women, a topic that Munch seems ever on the fence about. And though I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised to see something like this coming from Watkins, I guess I was - the life of Edvard Munch did not seem a likely vehicle for an examination of feminism. That'll teach me to try to pigeonhole Watkins as just one type of radical artist.

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