Friday, August 31, 2007

The Earrings of Madame de... (1953, Max Ophuls)

Look in the dictionary next to "elegance" and "sophistication" and it'll say "see The Earrings of Madame De...". But if this was all about making a movie look pretty and moving the camera like a champ, this wouldn't be a classic. What sets it apart is that it successfully overcomes the biggest trap for films about the privileged classes- the thing most of these movies get wrong but what nearly all the best ones (Barry Lyndon aside) get very right. Its characters transcend their social class and are engaging and sympathetic, and Ophüls makes us forget that they were all born with loads of money and are passing around earrings that are probably worth more than most people's cars. And that's no mean feat. People never tire of quoting Rules of the Game in reviews when they say, "everybody has his reasons," but they almost never quote the whole line, which begins, "the great tragedy of life is this." By the time Madame de..., approaching death, staggers up the hill to the place where her husband and lover are dueling, this idea is unmistakable in Ophüls' film as well. Rating: ***1/2 out of ****.

Les Enfants Terribles (1950, Jean-Pierre Melville)

I wasn't sure what to expect from a Melville/Cocteau collaboration, but their styles fit together surprisingly well. It's not as fanciful as one of Cocteau's own directorial efforts- compare the snowball fight here with the one in Blood of a Poet- but Melville is able to stylize this in his own way. The biggest kinship I see between the two filmmakers is that their best works deal with death, although they diverge there, and instead of the blurred line between the living and dead common to Cocteau's work, Melville imbues the story with a sense of gloom, like a fog that settles in over the action. Watching it, I never quite felt like I was watching events play out- rather that they'd been filtered through the prism of memory. But whose? Cocteau's, I dare say. I can definitely see the debt The Dreamers owes to this film, and Dreamers writer Gilbert Adair freely admits it, to his credit. Rating: ***1/2 out of ****.

The Bourne Ultimatum (2007, Paul Greengrass)

The most exciting Bourne adventure yet, all the more surprising from being crafted seemingly from thin air. Bourne may be impeccably played by Matt Damon, but he's still defined largely by his momentum, not unlike Walker in Point Blank. His motivation never changes- he wants to find out who he was before he lost his memory, and will barrel through anyone who tries to stop him. While this has been called a "thinking man's action movie," that has less to do with any substance than with the chilly, Jean-Pierre Melville-esque tone that's maintained throughout. Truth be told, the Bourne movies have always been more setpiece-dominated than most action movies, and this has three of the series' best- the Waterloo Station sequence, the three-way pursuit in Tangier, and the New York switcheroo followed by a car chase that's simultaneously ridiculous and grounded in real-world physics. And even more than the other Bourne films, this is wonderfully cast- even Julia Stiles seems more at ease now that she's more than a surveillance functionary behind a desk. Sure, it's all motion, but when you're watching you'll be too wrung out to complain. Rating: 7 out of 10.

Talk to Me (2007, Kasi Lemmons)

Solid entertainment, and occasionally more than that. Don Cheadle's performance as Petey Greene has been getting most of the press, and it's nice to see him really dig into a showy lead role- he sells the funny stuff but also the more serious moments, especially when Petey takes to the airwaves on the night of Dr. King's murder. But Chiwetel Ejiofor is just as good, taking an upright Sidney Poitier type and showing both the careerist hunger that drives him and the difficulties he has as a minority in a white-driven world. Dewey may be an exec at a station catering to an urban audience, but aside from the on-air talent and the receptionist he's the only black face in the office, which obviously weighs on him. I appreciated that the film doesn't shy away from the racial issues at play, not only in Dewey's life, but in his relationship with Petey as well, which play out nicely in an early game of pool and take off from there. Ultimately, despite the historical backdrop, the film works primarily as a story of their friendship, which causes both of them to grow. This is why I think the film's final half-hour is necessary- rather than finishing up at the high point of Petey's professional career, Lemmons shows us how their rather unlikely friendship plays out over the years. Rating: 7 out of 10.

Red Desert (1964, Michelangelo Antonioni)

Visually, as gorgeous as anything Antonioni has ever done, but as wonderful as the images are, they're never comforting or reassuring. As with L'Avventura and later Blow-Up, Antonioni places his protagonist in a situation from which she'll never emerge, but unlike those films she's already there when the film begins. Having sustained minor injuries in what was by all accounts a small car crash, Giulietta (Monica Vitti) has become deeply wounded psychologically. Those around her can't relate to her troubles, and the only one who tries is her husband's friend Zeller (Richard Harris). But despite his attempts to get to the bottom of her condition, nothing changes. It's a deeply existential problem from which she suffers, and one can't help but wonder if she's been predisposed to her mental illness all her life and the accident merely set it off. But Antonioni isn't about analysis, nor does he even try to answer the question, and good on him for that. As expected, there are a handful of magnificent setpieces, like the extended party/aborted group sex experiment at a boathouse, as well as a strange fairly tale Giulietta tells her ailing son during his temporary paralysis (when he recovers, it's almost as though he's mocking his mother's lingering malaise). The film lacks the kind of bravura ending usually associated with Antonioni's work, but the film was so deeply rewarding that I didn't really miss it. Two more thoughts: (1) I need to see this on a big screen, like, yesterday, and (2) maybe it's just me, and I know this is kind of heretical, but Monica Vitti was actually foxier with dark hair. Rating: ***1/2 out of ****.

Bamako (2006, Abderramane Sissako)

My reaction as the credits rolled: "if the trial scenes weren't real, they should have been; if the non-trial scenes were't fake, they could have been." In many ways, Bamako is a unique achievement- an unapologetically political statement about the World Bank and the pragmatic side of international humanitarianism in which the African people, usually presented only as smiling children or miserable adults in charity ads, have a say about their plight. It's talky as hell, but all the better for it, and the trial scenes are so fascinating that they give didacticism- a word often connoted as negative- a good name. I could've watched 90 minutes of these scenes, frankly. The scenes not devoted to debate are more uneven, sadly- Sissako too often resorts to uninspired setup-and-payoff, most egregiously in the subplot involving some business over a gun. Some of this seeps into the trial as well, when the man not permitted to speak in the early scene finally leaps up during the final arguments and pours out his heart in song (I was kind of troubled by the lack of subtitles here- if it was the filmmakers' idea, it strikes me as a clumsy way to portray a pure, un-Westernized bit of African culture; if it was the subtitlers' doing, what gives?). Fortunately, the good stuff far outpaces the dodgy stuff, and Bamako proves far superior to Sissako's last film, the inexplicably-lauded snoozer Waiting for Happiness. Also, while I'm not as high on Bamako as this guy is, I'm with him on what the final shot should have been. Don't you hate it when directors have a perfect finish in their grasp but can't manage to stop there? Rating: 7 out of 10.

Broken Trail (2006, Walter Hill)

There seems to be a strain of hybrid Western, existing between the old-guard oaters of John Wayne and the bleaker, more self-aware reinventions that sprung up starting in the late sixties. Like its spiritual brother Open Range- and to a lesser extent the films of Sam Peckinpah- Broken Trail contains some blood and brutality, but it nonetheless has a moral code to it (loyalty, caring for women and the helpless, etc.), and its tone isn't so much despair as elegy. A lot of the charm comes from the leisurely pacing- the baddie don't even show up until an hour in, giving us time to immerse ourselves in the lives of the heroes and to enjoy their relationship before the plot comes a-callin'. Mostly Broken Trail is just a rock-solid Western, with an entertaining old-lion performance from Robert Duvall- also in Open Range- and a surprisingly effective taciturn one from Thomas Haden Church. Broken Trail touches on some unsavory ideas about the old West- our government's eradication of Native Americans, the selling of young Chinese girls into sex slavery, and so on- but the film treads lightly, with Hill satisfied to simply make a good cowboy yarn. And it's a damn good one, truth be told, which is too rare a breed nowadays, no matter what strain of cowboy movie you're talking about. Rating: 8 out of 10.

Superbad (2007, Greg Mottola)

Consider this rating highly tentative, as it's hard to this independently of the obviously-awesome experience of seeing it in a full auditorium. But yeah, it's damn funny stuff. Strangely enough, compared to most of the best recent comedies, this goes fairly light on the real-life themes, although a few times when they pop up, they overwhelm the plot by being used in fairly unimaginative ways (like the temporary falling-out between Evan and Seth, to be followed by the inevitable reconciliation). There's also a strange but not unwelcome tension between the authentic nature of the heroes' friendship and the sumo-wrestler's-ass-broad scenes involving the local police. But while the tension makes the film interesting, it's the slapsticky, repetitive feel of the cop scenes that keep Superbad from really attaining classic status. Don't get me wrong, the movie is funny as hell, but only sporadically does it show real comic inspiration, although when it does, buckle up (I especially loved the bit involving a stain on Seth's trousers). Jonah Hill (as Seth) and Christopher Mintz-Plasse (as Fogell aka McLovin) are awesome and will almost certainly become fan favorites, but I think Michael Cera should be singled out for recognition. While his costars play to the rafters, Cera grounds the film firmly in reality, reacting in a wholly believable- and hilarious- manner to the chaos that mounts around him. Plus his timing is spooky and- at age 19!- he's already a master of the throwaway line, as when he randomly references a lesson in health-class while in mid-seduction. I was also pleasantly surprised by the strangely bittersweet tone of the final scene, which true to form the movie follows with a bunch of drawings of cocks. Rating: 7 out of 10.

A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (1987, Chuck Russell)

It's refreshing to look at an early entry in this deathless series again, from back when they were still trying to make them interesting, rather than just a series of clever, convoluted kills. Part of it is that there's just enough Freddy to make this a Nightmare movie- in the small doses we see him in here, he's still a frightening boogeyman, rather than the quippy parody of same that he would become later on. I also enjoyed the effort they put into advancing the mythology of the Nightmare universe- the characters still relate somewhat to the events that started it all, and in an interesting twist, one is even able to call others into her nightmare to fend off Freddy. Watching this, I figured out what bugs me about Patricia Arquette nowadays- it's that marble-mouthed girlishness, which doesn't really wash when you're 40 years old but actually suits this role pretty well. Rating: **1/2 out of ****.

The Man With Two Brains (1983, Carl Reiner)

As the Bible might have said, it's easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a movie this silly to actually be good, but somehow this one manages it. Really, either it works for you or it doesn't- like the fellow said, these are the jokes, people. But if it's your thing, The Man With Two Brains is pretty sublime in its ridiculousness. The closest recent equivalent I can think of is something like Anchorman, in which the story is a clothesline for the silliness, and the whole cast is completely game. Compare Steve Martin here to contemporary comics like Adam Sandler or Dane Cook- whereas those guys seem just as concerned with looking cool and acting likable as they do with making you laugh, Martin was 100% committed to the silliness, and wasn't shy about making himself look like an ass if it would get laughs. Martin's innate likability helped- it's the disconnect between his whitebread charm and the goofiness of his early characters that made them so funny. But most of all, The Man With Two Brains survives on its jokes, mini-masterpieces of silliness. From the time Martin recited "In Dillman's Grove" (written by John Lillison, England's Greatest One-Armed Poet) to the bedridden Kathleen Turner- so soon after Body Heat, no less!- I was hooked. I just feel sorry for those kids out there who don't recognize the true identity of the Elevator Killer, since this deprives them of perhaps the film's biggest laugh. But if the face of Merv Griffin hasn't quite permeated the consciousness of the younger generation, they can always enjoy "Pointy birds, oh pointy-pointy / anoint my head, anointy-nointy..." Rating: ***1/2 out of ****.

Lady Chatterley (2006, Pascale Ferran)

What I enjoyed most about Lady Chatterley was its focus on the physicality of sex, something that is often sketched over by most "erotic" films, with their sex positions which are dictated more by their effect on the audience than their relation to the characters involved. In addition, the lack of physicality in most American films seems to be a way of turning attention to the emotional and psychological states of the characters in those films, perhaps due to the guilt and shame that has been handed down from our forefathers. But enough of this tangent- Lady Chatterley is pretty potent stuff, beginning with the strange tension between Britishness of the original story and the Frenchness of the production. In addition, I appreciated the sensuality that went hand in hand with the Lady's sexual awakening- as in other female-directed sex-themed films like The Piano and Friday Night, Lady Chatterley makes one acutely aware of the sensory possibilities of the film's setting, be they a field covered in daffodils, or the layer of sweat that covers the heroine after a day planting in the garden. Most Chatterley adaptations before this concentrated mostly on the erotic aspects of the story, but much of the added running time of this one is devoted to painting the mundane, repetitive life of the Lady, who as a result of her position has almost nothing to do with her days, which makes her ripe for an awakening, both sexually and to the possibilities of life in general. There are a few things that don't quite work, in particular the simplistic dichotomy between Parkin, the personification of the physical, and Lady Chatterley's husband, all upper-class haughtiness in his wheelchair (although the scene of the motorized chair struggling up the hill is a vivid portrait of impotence). However, it's a major work, and certainly one of the best sex-themed films to come along in years, and good on Ferran for not casting the lead roles with toned, contemporary-looking hotties- Marina Hands has a tantalizing bit of tummy, and Jean-Louis Cullo'ch looks like a burly outdoorsman, and since that's who he's playing it works. Also, this is the rare erotic film that doesn't front-load its nudity, which was nice. Rating: 8 out of 10.

Regular Lovers (2005, Philippe Garrel)

In a way, this movie is almost all third act, with most of the film comprised with the fallout of May '68. The funny thing about revolutions- people can only sustain their revolutionary impulses for so long before their more basic concerns can no longer be ignored. In other words, changing the world is good and noble until the food and money run out. So it goes in Regular Lovers, and the tragedy of Francois (Philippe Garrel) is that he lives for his ideals long after everyone has moved on. The revolution is over, the survivors are hooked on drugs or in debt or working for a living, anyone who looks suspicious is subject to random frisking by cops, and the pure artist of the bunch dies without publishing a word. Also, William Lubtchansky's black and white cinematography is pretty breathtaking in my opinion, and man it's been ages since I listened to the Kinks. Will rectify this situation momentarily. Rating: 7 out of 10.

In the Shadow of the Moon (2006, David Sington)

This is a solid crowd-pleasing documentary that should do good business with arthouse audiences and maybe get an Oscar attention. But while the copious NASA footage is impressive, this is the rare documentary where the talking heads (all former Apollo astronauts) are actually the highlight. What comes through even now in the interviews is Tom Wolfe's idea of "the right stuff"- that these men were intelligent, engaging, and above all fearless. The Apollo program captured the hearts of the nation in large part because it presented them with real heroes at a time when they needed them. And while I'm skeptical of people being anointed as heroes willy-nilly, these guys really deserved it. Rating: 6 out of 10.

Janus Films Retrospective

Vengeance Is Mine (1979, Shohei Imamura)- What makes this work is the way it so resolutely resists psychoanalysis. A lesser film would fixate on Iwao's shame at his father for being the wellspring of his insanity, but here it's at most the incident that sets him off. Many people experience disillusionment when they're young, but they don't all go on murderous rampages- clearly there was something amiss with Iwao, and a simple Freudian reading of the story seems woefully inadequate. But I also was taken with the way the film portrays all of its principal characters as highly flawed- Iwao's father and wife have a quasi-incestuous fixation with each other, Iwao's inkeeper mistress is basically kept woman to her landlord, and so on. Perhaps what separates Iwao from the rest isn't simply his acts, but that he doesn't feel guilty about them? Rating: ***1/2 out of ****.

WR: Mysteries of the Orga[ni]sm (1971, Dusan Makavejev)- In many ways, this feels like a "you had to be there" sort of experience- distant as we've grown from the world of the Iron Curtain and Vietnam, there's something vaguely alien about a movie that takes on both of these targets, and more besides, but doesn't so much take them down as tickle them for 80-odd minutes. One gets the impression that Makavejev put just enough controversial stuff in his movies to get the censors steamed, without actually compelling them to cut him down, which is no small feat considering the environment he was working in. Plus it's really goddamn funny, which shouldn't be ignored. But even more than with most movies, your mileage may vary. Rating: ***1/2 out of ****.

Cria Cuervos... (1976, Carlos Saura) This is one of the most bracingly unsentimental portraits of a young girl dealing with the presence of death in her life I've ever seen. Little Ana has been present for the deaths of her mother and father, but she doesn't know how to process it in a mature way, and as such the concept of death becomes almost trivial to her (for example, how casual she is about trying to poison those she dislikes). I also liked the ambiguousness of the scene with her father's handgun. I doubt she actually intends to use it, and I'm not even sure she knows it's loaded, but what would an 8-year-old want with a gun? To be honest though, I don't think this would have been nearly so effective if not for the perfect pairing of Ana Torrent and Geraldine Chaplin- there's one scene in particular in which Torrent is photographed from below and her facial structure matches Chaplin's so well that it's almost eerie. Also, there's a guinea pig, which was fun, although I have to admit that mine are cuter. Rating: ***1/2 out of ****.

Death of a Cyclist (1955, Juan Antonio Bardem)- Alternately compelling and hamfisted exploration of upper-class morality in Franco's Spain works better now as a cultural artifact than as straight drama. Unfortunately, Bardem's use of a reluctant member of the ruling class strikes me as misguided, since he's too obviously meant to be a surrogate for the director's own feelings about social stratification in his native land. Technical issues aside (it appears than Spanish dramas of the period were roughly equivalent to mid-30s Hollywood from a tech standpoint) the film would have been helped most with a greater emphasis on its female protagonist over the more wishy-washy male lead, not least because of Lucia Bosé, who had screen presence to burn. Rating: **1/2 out of ****.

Autumn Sonata (1978, Ingmar Bergman) This, folks, is what you might call "minor Bergman"- not a disaster like The Serpent's Egg, but more of a regurgitation of pet Bergman themes and tropes than a fully-realized vision. The film works mostly because of the onscreen pairing of Liv Ullmann and Ingrid Bergman as daughter and mother, and the clash of styles that results. Ingrid always feels a little out of place in Ingmar's world, which creates an interesting tension that might not have resulted had the director cast one of his regulars in the role. Ingrid feels too composed for Bergman-land, but that's the point- she's so unwilling to feel the world around her, so prone to keeping them at a distance with lots of talk and easy laughter, that she's become alienated from everyone, especially those who love her most. If the long and impassioned two-hander that dominates the film's second hour works at all, it's because of her and Ullmann. Rating: **1/2 out of ****.

Cléo From 5 to 7 (1962, Agnès Varda)- I love how much Cléo grows during the course of this film. At the beginning, she seems to fear death mostly because it'll wreak havoc on her looks and her youth, but she has very little stake in anything else. But it's as though when she whips off that wig and storms out of her flat alone, she willfully pursues her own betterment. Could make an interesting double feature with INSIGNIFICANCE, another movie about a famous blonde who refuses to play the vapid sex object so many others would have her be. Rating: ***1/2.

The Cranes Are Flying (1957, Mikhail Kalatozov)- Still gorgeous. It's actually more emotionally overwhelming on the big screen, and not just because of Kalatozov and ace cinematographer Sergei Urusevsky's use of closeups. Amid all the bravura direction, the emotional timbre of this feels almost like Jacques Demy, trading in the same kind of sad irony as a film like THE UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG. Rating: ***1/2.

Summer With Monika (1953, Ingmar Bergman)- First time seeing the original cut [as compared to the STORY OF A BAD GIRL cut]. While I admit that this one works better, I still have my reservations about it. From a storytelling standpoint, the deck feels a little too stacked to me. Aside from his drunk and largely-absent dad, practically every adult in Harry's life at the beginning of the film is an asshole, and so when Monika comes along the choice to steal away with her is remarkably easy. And then after she gets pregnant and has the kid, her character turns on a dime into a bitch (I almost said irresponsible as well, but she was always that). As a result, the film comes off as baldly moralistic- if you turn your back on responsibilty to spend your youth frivolously, you'll end up paying for it the rest of your life. What mostly makes the film work in spite of the message is the magical middle section, in which Harry and Monika enjoy their titular summer together. In keeping with the film's message, Bergman's style in this segment of the film is strictly in-the-moment, as heedless of what is to come as his protagonists. Once the fun stops, it gets more boilerplate, although two extended closeups- one of Monika, one of Harry- are justifiably acclaimed. Rating: ***.

Lola (1981, Rainer Werner Fassbinder)- Sweet Jesus is this movie gorgeous. For my money, Fassbinder's talent as a visual stylist doesn't get nearly enough press- most of the stuff I see about his work tends to focus on his pet themes (sexual power dymanics, recent German history, etc.) and how the film relates to Fassbinder's own life. But any filmmaker who does work that's even remotely "personal"- even visually-impaired dudes like Kevin Smith who might as well be directing for radio- has his own bunch of pet themes and obsessions. But Fassbinder is visually gifted, and versatile to boot, which may have been why his talent as a stylist are overlooked (stylistically speaking, The Merchant of the Four Seasons is not Effi Briest, which in turn is not The Marriage of Maria Braun). Of the Fassbinders I've seen, Lola has to be the most visually ravishing. Fassbinder's use of color and lighting is stunning, especially in scenes where he washes different actors in different hues, even within the same shot. It's also sort of amazing how quickly he was able to get his cast, many of whom were Fassbinder newcomers, on his wavelength so quickly, a testament not only to the strength of his material but also to his sure-handed direction. I'm so glad I saw this for the first time on the big screen, since the directorial niceties wouldn't have hit me nearly as hard on DVD. Rating: ***1/2.

The Flowers of St. Francis (1950, Roberto Rossellini)
- I'm woefully underversed in Rossellini, since Italian New Wave has never been my favorite period in film history. Like many Italian works of the period, I respected this but didn't quite manage to love it, although admittedly if I was one of the faithful I might feel differently about it. I'm just waiting for some Final Cut Pro-savvy movie nerd to post The Wacky Adventures of Brother Ginepro on YouTube. Rating: ***.

The Boss of It All (2006, Lars Von Trier)

In a way, this feels of a piece with Von Trier's more polemic works, particularly the way it holds the greedy capitalists up to scorn. This time around, Von Trier goes about this by making the big-business character a coward who would rather be loved by his coworkers than fess up to the unpopular decisions he makes, and eventually the character he exploits- an actor he hires to play the feared "boss of it all"- ends up taking him down by giving him a big, bitter spoonful of his own medicine. But this is also a film about ceding control, not only by the characters in the film, but also by Von Trier himself, who famously used a computer program called Automovision, designed to control camera framing, editing, and sound mixing randomly. Surprisingly, it's not as distracting as I'd feared, especially not the visual style, which merely feels skewed and sort of quirky (the non-matching soundtracks did get jarring at times). Mostly though, it's just funny, and if you'd told me a year or so ago that the biggest impression I'd take from an upcoming Von Trier film was that it was funny, I would have looked at you funny. But there you go. Rating: 7 out of 10.

My Best Friend (2006, Patrice Leconte)

Fascinating and exasperating in equal measure, Leconte's latest film is a step toward lighter fare that left me conflicted. Many of my negative feelings toward the film comes from the dum-dum premise, in which a friendless man is bet by his business partner that he can't produce a best friend within 10 days. The film's first reel or so is easily the least interesting part, as associates of Daniel Auteuil's character, with next to no provocation, come right out and tell him that he doesn't have any friends. Now come on dudes- I don't think there are any adults, particularly not in the cultivated circles Francois runs in, who come right out and tell someone this. They'd be more likely to simply humor him until he does something abominable, at which time someone would blurt it out and everyone else would find themselves inclined to agree. Fortunately, the film gets better, due in large part to the performances of Auteuil and Dany Boon, who plays a cab driver Auteuil enlists to teach him about friendship. The two actors have an easy chemistry, and their scenes together are charming, up until a boorish miscalculation on Auteuil's part alienates his new pal and they have a sudden falling-out, in a scene that feels forced and silly. However, the film rebounds in the final act, involving Boon's last-minute booking on Who Wants to Be a Millionare?, works like gangbusters, with Leconte milking real suspense partly by exploiting the manufactured suspense of the game show, and partly by the turn of events. My Best Friend is inconsistent and occasionally exasperating, but I'll certainly take it over the somnambulent Intimate Strangers. Rating: 5 out of 10.

Blue Collar (1978, Paul Schrader)

On one level this is a bitter portrait of organized labor, but delve a little deeper and you'll see that this is Schrader's attempt at bemoaning the death of 60s idealism. The film's multiracial trio of heroes gets pissed off with their lot in life and decide to stick it to the man by ripping him off, but they end up either dead or manipulated so that they're against each other in the end. Schrader comes right out and says it- the powers that be keep the rest of us down by steering our hostilities away from them and toward each other, and most of us don't realize it until it's too late, if ever. Harvey Keitel and Yaphet Kotto are solid as expected, but Richard Pryor owns this movie. It's fascinating to see him outside his straight comedy element, with the anger that he leavened with hilarity onstage standing on its own here. Pryor's character is the one who changes most over the course of the film, and not always for the better, but throughout his metamorphosis from angry worker bee to union patsy he's always completely authentic. It's sad to think what potential he held as an actor that remained untapped due to his self-destructive tendencies and his all-too-frequent retreat back to safe low-comedy vehicles and late-period Superman sequels. Rating: *** out of ****.

Offside (2006, Jafar Panahi)

It's a crying shame that this never made it to Columbus screens, since it's really the sort of crowdpleaser that should be enjoyed with a nice big audience. As with many of the most lauded Iranian films, Panahi is dealing with his country's treatment of women, this time by centering the story around the banning of women from sporting events. But his approach is neither satirical nor didactic. Instead he tells his story in microcosm, focusing on a small group of female soccer fans and the soldiers who guard them after the women are arrested and sequestered from the male spectators. By situating his story at the fringes of a major soccer game (Panahi shot large portions of the film at a 2005 World Cup qualifying match versus Bahrain), the absurdity of the situation can come out through the characters and their actions rather than the convolutions of the story. It's telling that the soldiers are extremely pissed off about their task, not just because they can't enjoy the game, but also because they're sort of at a loss to explain why female soccer spectators are such a bane on society. They hem and haw and regurgitate the orders they're given, but in the face of the women's conviction they're sort of helpless. Against this lazily united front, the women band together. They knew the risk when they came to the game, and now that they've been caught they're going to make the best of it. After Iran wins the game, the women end up getting away, but it's telling that their joyous escape isn't a victory for feminism, but nationalism. And what is nationalism if it can't be shared by everyone? Rating: 8 out of 10.

Thursday, August 2, 2007

August 2007 mini-reviews

8/31- Lonely Hearts (2006, Todd Robinson) [4] {Mostly forgettable, aside from the ways in which director Robinson practically jumps through hoops to lionize his grandfather, the detective who cracked the case, played by John Travolta. The connection is pretty cool, I guess, but it doesn't exactly make for riveting cinema. The real story is Beck and Fernandez, and whenever we're not with them the movie sags, sags, sags.}

8/26- Ball of Fire (1941, Howard Hawks) [***1/2] {Was Barbara Stanwyck the coolest actress from the golden age of Hollywood? She very well might've been. She was just about the most versatile- not in the Master Thespian look-how-I-transform-myself-for-my-art sense, but in the sense that she could kill in damn near any genre. And she was sexy as hell, all the more wondrously so because she wasn't as conventionally glamorous as many of her counterparts, but unlike them she realized that sex appeal was above behavior more than appearance. Who else could've pulled off a character named Sugarpuss O'Shea? Yeah, didn't think so. Oh, and the movie's pretty damn great too.}

8/24- She Done Him Wrong (1933, Lowell Sherman) [***] {If Mae West's innuendos have lost much of their shock value, they're as funny as they ever were. What keeps this from being a really great film like the best work of Fields and the Marx brothers was West's use of conventional plotting. Much of the charm of those Fields and Marx classics was their cavalier disregard for conventional narrative setup-and-payoff, but in the world of She Done Him Wrong the true wrongdoers get punished, and the wrongs are made right. If there's any outlaw charge at all, it's that West herself is exempt from these rules, partly because she talks bad but isn't a crook, but also because of her ever-present belief that sex cuts through morality, rather than the other way around.}

8/24- Cobra Woman (1943, Robert Siodmak) [**] {Not a good movie by any means- I can't imagine watching this alone- but certainly a lot of fun. Sequences of this movie, especially the notorious King Cobra dances, are so jaw-dropping that they're unforgettable. Easy to see Jack Smith's obsession with Maria Montez too. Like many B-movie icons, she may not have been much of an actress, but she had style and presence out the wazoo, so much that you could forgive her shortcomings as a thespian.}

8/23- Pennies From Heaven (1981, Herbert Ross) [***1/2] {What he said, basically. I actually prefer this to Dancer in the Dark because of Ross' fidelity to the style of elaborate Hollywood musicals in the fantasy sequences. Whereas Von Trier's visions look like just regular Von Trier but with music, the contrast of the fantasies in Pennies make them switch between fantasy and "reality" all the more jarring. And strangely poignant too, as when Steve Martin finds himself alone but for his Hollywood-fed fantasies at the end of the film. I guess I need to see the BBC original, but as a remake this blows the 2003 Singing Detective out of the water.}

8/19- The Band Wagon (1953, Vincente Minnelli) [****] {Doesn't quite sustain the level of joy one gets from Singin' in the Rain, but that's about the only thing you can say against this. So many pleasures to be had- the urbane elegance of Fred Astaire, the in-every-way awesome legs of Cyd Charisse, the great songs, the gorgeous sets, and so much more. And why has Eli Roth's Thanksgiving trailer been posted dozens if not hundreds of times on YouTube while nobody has bothered to post "Triplets?" A sad state of affairs for today's tech-savvy movie lovers...}

8/7- Lorna (1964, Russ Meyer) [**] {As propulsive and convulsive as Meyer's films tend to be, I never expected to say this, but Lorna is mostly just kinda meh. A lot of the blame can be heaped on Lorna Maitland who, far from being the archetypal Meyer Amazon, is just sort of a wet blanket. Admittedly she has considerable natural, um, talents (lovely talents too, I must add) but she doesn't have much else going for her. As a result, the film is built around a vacuum, so despite some entertaining business on the fringes- especially Hal Hopper egging on Lorna's husband- the center cannot hold. In addition, the fire-and-brimstone morality of the story (including the "Man of God" narrator) feels fairly cynical here, a spoonful of medicine given to the audience so they don't feel so bad about eating the sugar.}

8/1- # /Mala Noche (1985, Gus Van Sant)/ [**1/2] {It's very much a first film, which doesn't quite make it good but certainly makes it interesting. The black-and-white helps- it lends the images a beauty they would otherwise lack, not to mention that it gives me more motivation to lend the film some extra goodwill. And some of the images are legitimately beautiful, especially the shot of Pepper's newly-dead body, having just fallen out of a window into the street, with steam rising from it as the rain comes pouring down. Still, more interesting as an early indication of Van Sant's later films- especially My Own Private Idaho and his Tarr-inflected "Death" trilogy.}