Friday, December 24, 2010

#107: Mona Lisa

(Neil Jordan, 1986)

Mona Lisa belongs to two crudely constructed genres which generally don't thrill me: the performance film and the slice of vaguely noirish cinema in which naive men become exposed to the dark sexual habits to which women often fall victim. The latter - to which a massively wide-ranging quality of films belong, including everything from Taxi Driver to the recent joke/surprise hit Taken - can often be either oppressively dark or weirdly fetishistic. Taken, for example, revels in the male fantasy of protecting untainted girls from the evil grasp of the rest of the horny male sex, all while pretending (albeit very vaguely) to condemn conventional concepts of sex and gender power dynamics. It's a "have your cake and eat it, too" style of filmmaking that, sadly, can be easily well received by the general moviegoing public (worst of all, Taken was especially popular among women). On the other hand, Taxi Driver, of course, leads to the destruction of civilization, to the point where even any kind of redemption that can be taken from Travis Bickle's final moments is difficult to carry under the weight. (Side note: I feel I've been comparing really amazing movies to really awful movies a lot recently.)

Mona Lisa, fortunately, avoids both of these conclusions, instead depicting an entirely realistic and extremely moving climax which avoids both exploitation and hopelessness. A big part of this success can be attributed to Neil Jordan, who manages to make the film moody without being mannered, and generally paints a melancholy but redemptive picture of London as a noir capitol. But most of the success can go to Bob Hoskins, who is simply stunning and heartbreaking as George, an ex-con who slowly falls in love with the prostitute he's charged with driving around town to her various johns. There aren't a whole lot of performances that spring to mind that can compare to Hoskins here, who is understated and controlled where his character from The Long Good Friday was oversized and full of fire.

It's easy to compare the two movies, really, since both are British noir films starring (really, entirely focused on) Hoskins. But Mona Lisa has none of the religious baggage the earlier film had (here, I guess, it's mostly sexual) and though it lacks the energy that carried The Long Good Friday through to its climax, it makes up for it in personal stories that carry far more weight and simply feel more relatable. Even if it takes some time to get going, it's a very strong picture, one of Jordan's best, and even though I usually shy away from movies that center around one major performance, Hoskins makes Mona Lisa a must see.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

#364: Monsters and Madmen

(Robert Day and Spencer G. Bennet, 1958-1959)

Monsters and Madmen is an unusual but welcome addition to the collection. It is a solid representation of a very specific kind of film from a very specific era in film history. While many of the movies from this era have become extremely campy with passing time, even the rudimentary effects of The Atomic Submarine and the ridiculous costume in First Man into Space are easy to ignore because you are invested in the story and more amazed by the filmmakers' sheer (perhaps misguided) confidence to pull it off.

Of the four films, I enjoyed Bennet's more than Day's three. Not only did The Atomic Submarine have the most enjoyable effects, the best lines, and some of the more interesting philosophical underpinnings, it was also for me the most fun by far. I loved the alien, whose look recalled The Simpsons and intentions recalled The Twilight Zone. I loved the ship, one of the most obvious models I've ever seen in a film, the kind of effect that makes you think Ed Wood wasn't so off the mark. Mostly, though, I loved the score, which was futurism at its wackiest.

Then there's The Haunted Strangler, which I actually think could be remade with a few tweaks to make the reveal a bit more believable. In fact, Karloff's performances in that film and Corridors of Blood helped carry the movies. The only one I didn't really like First Man into Space, most likely because the threat seems so unlikely to us now (the film was dated in just a few years). Still, a great collection, and while it's not the ideal set for me, it's the kind of thing that probably changed the lives of a few fellow nerds out there.

Links to individual reviews:

First Man into Space
The Atomic Submarine
The Haunted Strangler
Corridors of Blood

#367: The Haunted Strangler

(Robert Day, 1958)

 The Haunted Strangler has basically the exact same plot structure as Corridors of Blood. Boris Karloff plays a well-intentioned, well-respected man in the 1800s who is searching for a solution to a common problem and unwittingly becomes the villain. He has a younger protégé who is romantically involved with his younger relative in both, and both end in tragic finales.

On the other hand, The Haunted Strangler has a much more appealing concept behind it. Karloff is searching for a man who may have been the real killer in a serial spree twenty years earlier... though of course there's more to it than that. Karloff, for his part, gets to do some really great over the top physical work here, and the movie is a memorable one (and not just because the final victim in the initial spree was Martha Stewart!). Ultimately, though, these are the kind of movies that are more pleasurable than anything else, worthy distractions from more serious weighty topics (see the last month of Bergman viewings). I enjoyed it more than Corridors of Blood, but the genre itself fails to grab me beyond basic entertainment.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

#477: Bergman Island

(Marie Nyrerod, 2006)

Bergman Island was released on Criterion two years after the director died, and it's a testament to what he means to the collection - and of course to film in general - that they released it at all. The film is little more than an extended conversation with Bergman where he reflects on his career, his life, and his looming death. Though he wasn't sick, he had clearly not only retired from his job, but retired almost entirely from the world. He never left the island of Fåro he settled on for the last few years of his life.

The movie is ultimately a reminder of both Bergman's great mind (which was still very much alive and sharp) and his terrible personal life, mirroring in many ways the life of his most famous fan, Woody Allen. Married a number of times, uninterested in his children, generally callous towards anyone he had lost interest in, Bergman was a true "artist" in the worst sense of the word, the kind you hope isn't the norm but is instead the exception. I've always found it quite easy to ignore the unlikable life story of a director or musician or author in order to enjoy their work, and I don't think Bergman is any different. However, I don't mean to say that I absolve Bergman of his sins, or believe his work somehow makes up for what he did to a fairly large number of people (he had nine children). But especially now, years after those wounds were opened and many of them have healed, his work lives on and will continue to live on. It doesn't make him any more right (or, let's face it, any less dead) but it makes our lives richer.

#264: The Making of Fanny and Alexander

(Ingmar Bergman, 1982)

The Making of Fanny and Alexander was the first of two feature-length documentaries I watched to round out my mini Bergman fest. Included as a supplement in the Fanny and Alexander boxset (but nevertheless given a spine number due to its length), the documentary is an interesting look behind the scenes at Bergman's last masterpiece, but it's by no means a standalone piece.

The documentary is arranged as vignettes that run through the entire course of filming, broken up only by cards written by Bergman which set up each sequence (and/or make witty little asides). The result is a sparse aesthetic and a gentle hand behind the camera and in the editing room which makes for a good document but not much of a documentary. Worth viewing only for true fans of Bergman and Fanny and Alexander.

Friday, December 3, 2010

#262: Fanny and Alexander (TV Version)

(Ingmar Bergman, 1982)

Watching this four-and-a-half-hour masterpiece, I was reminded of one of the great tragedies of cinema, the (as far as we know) complete destruction of Orson Welles's original cut of The Magnificent Ambersons. The surviving 90-minute version of the follow-up to Citizen Kane is still one of the great films of the 40s, and inevitably what had been done with the original cut would have been even more impressive.

Welles had complete artistic freedom when he made The Greatest Film of All Time, but the rest of his career basically consisted of him being shit on by everyone in the industry. Bergman had a much more conventional experience for a master director, so thankfully, by the time his swan song rolled around, he had been given free rein on his films for decades. This allowed him to create both a three-hour theatrical version of the film (which won Best Foreign Film, Bergman's third) and this full-length version. Based on the cuts described, I can't fathom preferring the shorter edition of the film, as some of the cuts seem to sink to the core of the film's strengths.

The movie itself is ridiculously confident, touching upon nearly all of Bergman's most recognizable themes. But it's also Bergman's warmest and most nostalgic movie, reflecting fondly upon a simulacrum of his childhood. There are certainly dark, even harrowing, moments, most notably the scene of Emilie wailing in the night after the death of her husband and the riveting scene of the showdown between Alexander and the bishop. But they are countered with the joyous banquets that bookend the film and a sense of mystery and playfulness that shines with the love of film, which is to say the love of entertainment, discovery, trickery.

I thought of The Magician, Smiles of a Summer Night, Winter Light, The Silence, Wild Strawberries, and The Seventh Seal while watching Fanny and Alexander, and I'm sure subsequent viewings would add to that list. Plenty of people have recognized or posited that the film is a sort of autobiography of Bergman, but when they say that they are often speaking of the director's childhood. Clearly there are moments that confirm this, but I think the film is far more relevant to his later years, the years of his career as a filmmaker. It makes for a rare opportunity to experience the summation of a great career within a compelling and memorable story that stands on its own.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

#292: Unfaithfully Yours

(Preston Sturges, 1948)

I hadn't seen Unfaithfully Yours in a while, so when I saw it was on Netflix streaming I decided to give it another try and see if I was wrong about ranking it a notch below Sturges's great masterpieces, most notably The Lady Eve and Sullivan's Travels. The film first came to my attention in one comedy ranking list or another that I read when I was younger, claiming that it was one of the best comedies ever. Considering that the film had rarely come up in descriptions of Sturges's work - along with the two films above, most often mentioned are the screwball classic The Palm Beach Story and the Code-defying The Miracle of Morgan's Creek - my interest was piqued. However, the first viewing was a moderate disappointment. There were certainly great moments that confirmed Sturges's touch, and the film moved along at a crisp and light pace, despite the wickedly black humor at the core of the film. But it lacked any compelling characters, and Rex Harrison (though I love him) was simply unable to carry a film like Henry Fonda, or even really Joel McCrea.

Watching it again, I had many of the same issues. I generally love dark films, and there's a certain pleasure in watching Sturges's get away with a fantasy sequence in which his main character murders someone with great gusto (though the gender dynamics of the scene leave me a little cold). But I don't know if it's really earned enough to be warranted, and I think the film sags without a truly memorable star to prop up the weightiness of the subject matter. Still, it's a very enjoyable movie, and a worthwhile watch. But it's not a classic by any means, and I'd much rather see Palm Beach Story in the collection.

#255: Opening Night

(John Cassavetes, 1976)

Opening Night is the last Cassavetes film in the Criterion boxset John Cassavetes: Five Films, both chronologically and for me personally. The five films, Shadows, Faces, A Woman Under the Influence, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie and Opening Night, are also the only Cassavetes films I've seen (though I did see most of Gloria a long time ago but remember little of it). Within the group, A Woman Under the Influence is the only one I really loved and this final one, Opening Night, is my least favorite.

Without any of the crackling energy of Shadows or Faces and none of the dramatic resonance of A Woman Under the Influence or The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, Opening Night felt extremely dull. It didn't help that the movie was about the stage (which, as I've discussed before, holds little interest for me), but what really got to me was the trademark Cassavetes looseness of the tone and dialog. Certainly the director that has most carried the Cassavetes torch since his passing is Mike Leigh, another actor's director who turns intense rehearsal and improvisation into tight literary works that operate as a kind of technical exploration of personal interaction. It shouldn't come as much surprise to hear that I'm not much of a fan of Leigh's either.

One thing I want to get on this blog is some opening thoughts on a dismissal of either a great film or a great director. Obviously in this specific case I don't think Cassavetes is a bad director, I don't even think that people who love his films are wrong. They simply do not have any kind of significant impact on me, and his style rubs me the wrong way. I think there is a big difference between this perspective and tearing down someone's work in the way that I believe, say, Lars Von Trier's films deserve. Honestly, with a director like Cassavetes, I would much rather stay silent on his work, simply because I don't feel like I bring anything to the table since his films didn't engage me, and I certainly wouldn't write on them if it wasn't for the format of this blog.

I think this tends to be a big problem in film criticism, where new work must be reviewed regardless of the impact (or lack thereof) it had on the writer. This makes for a lot of mediocre work that sometimes dismisses films that deserve a closer look and praises films that should have a sharper critical eye taken to them. The former is the true tragedy, and I think emphasizes the responsibility of critics as cultural gatekeepers (though really in this age of technology overload more as cultural quality control). Just because a work doesn't move you is no reason to dismiss it. But it's also not a reason to discount your own personal experience with the work. Genuine art - as opposed to commercial skill-based product masquerading as art - must always demand respect, but it does not demand appreciation. John Cassavetes spent his entire life struggling to navigate a difficult studio system and the trials of raising the enormous sums of money necessary to produce films because he deeply believed in the work he was producing. While none of this separates him from Ed Wood, the fact that his work isn't merely about making films for the sake of films, but about examining the human condition makes his work worth examining, and his technical skill sets him apart. What this means is that my word, like the word I have given on every film on this blog, is by no means meant as a definitive look at a film or his work, but as a personal response meant as a soundboard for both readers and myself as I look back on these thoughts. Just as reviewing L'Avventura gave me a new perspective on the film that greatly improved my opinion of it, twenty years from now I may feel very differently about Cassavetes. Considering how well made his films are, I wouldn't be surprised.

#60: Autumn Sonata

(Ingmar Bergman, 1978)

Autumn Sonata is an infinitely better movie than Precious. Let's get that out of the way now.

Okay, that being said, let's talk about movies that punch you in the gut just because it seems like a fun thing to do. Autumn Sonata, like Bergman's earlier Cries and Whispers, is the kind of film you need to watch an episode of Entourage after viewing, just to clear your head of the bad thoughts (or any thoughts, really). Combining mentally challenged people, dysfunctional families, and stunted emotional growth with topics ranging from abortion to rape, the movie is so spiritually draining that it becomes extremely difficult viewing, even as it holds your attention completely throughout its running time.

Are movies like these really worthwhile? At a certain point, Precious, which did not have the benefit of a director who ranks among the ten or fifteen greatest of all time and two actresses that have similarly high-level talents, becomes so over-the-top tragic that it takes on a pedantic tone that turns the film into medicine instead of art, though the medicine is there for a sickness that doesn't really exist. Finally, it just ends up tasting bad for no reason. The question then becomes whether or not this effect is tied to the technique and artfulness of the film. In other words, does Autumn Sonata avoid the ditch Precious drives into, simply because it is a far better executed and intelligent movie?

Mainly because this is a difficult question to answer, Autumn Sonata isn't quite Bergman's late-era masterpiece (more on that one later) but it does have the kind of confident preciseness and masterful thematic and technical control viewers are rewarded with when an older established filmmaker nears the end of their career. The issues and motivations Bergman is most interested in exploring had been honed over thirty years of filmmaking, and with a film like Autumn Sonata they come so naturally that the movie seems to be both reality show and extended metaphor simultaneously. However, I do think Bergman covered similar themes more successfully in Cries and Whispers, while the piling on of tragedy after tragedy is not as rewarding or worthwhile here as it was there.

The film is also a pairing of Swedish cinema's two most famous (and similarly named) film icons, Ingmar Bergman and Ingrid Bergman, and this is really where its major significance comes into play. Despite the fact that Ingrid plays a horrible woman, her performance is excellent, and she is able to make us feel sorry for her without playing the victim. It's certainly weird to watch her speaking Swedish, but it's also interesting to watch her in a film that is so much more modern than movies I've seen countless times, most notably (of course) Casablanca and Notorious, both of which I have probably seen over 30 times. Seeing this film reminds me that apart from the star system that carried her through so many masterpieces throughout her career, Ingrid was truly a great actress who was beautiful to both the viewer and the camera, and one of the great stars in film history.

The last and most obvious observation I made was just how similar Woody Allen's Bergmanesque films are to this one. Interestingly, Interiors, undoubtedly Allen's most overt tribute to Bergman, was made a year before Autumn Sonata. It's almost as if Bergman saw Allen's film and said, "You think that's Bergman? Here's some fucking Bergmany Bergman."