Tuesday, May 24, 2011

#317: The Tales of Hoffman

(Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, 1951)

Ah, the opera. As I've mentioned before, the opera and I are not especially simpatico. Like the other popular entertainment of the 19th century, non-playoff baseball, the opera is a pleasant trip out to a beautiful venue in person and a crushing bore at home on your television. The Tales of Hoffman is like a midday game at Fenway webstreamed at the office: beautiful to look at, better than work, but ultimately I'd rather just see it in person.

Of course, seeing this production in person would be impossible, since Powell and Pressburger did a number of things that are impossible (or inadvisable) to replicate in a live setting. The most obvious are the sweeping grandiose sets that morph and breathe throughout, but the ambitious camera work and soundtrack that is entirely dubbed (with many of the performers playing roles to which other singers lent their voices) make the film a notably different experience than an equivalent live performance. For a film lover who is also an opera lover, this alone makes The Tales of Hoffman worthwhile, in much the same way that The Mikado was so valuable simply because it captured a roughly representative performance of the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company for posterity.

And to be sure, even a young jaded opera hater such as myself cannot deny how beautiful The Tales of Hoffman is, and what an inspiring accomplishment it is. Based on a classic French libretto, the songs have been translated into English here so people would follow along with the story of a poet who is continually foiled in his romantic pursuits by the muse of art, insistent on making him love only his work.  The story follows Hoffman as he recounts three moments of lost love from his past - each more beautiful than the last, as Powell and Pressburger really pull out all the stops, turning the proceedings into one long extended version of the dance sequence in The Red Shoes, only shifted from surreal to fantastical.

Still, despite being entirely convinced that the film is a total success, this is just not a film for me. Only because this is a casual blog where I am simply throwing out my own impressions of my viewings - rather than formally reviewing a work - would I even think to offer an opinion on this film. Simply put, Very nice, but not for me.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

#304: The Man Who Fell to Earth

(Nicholas Roeg, 1976)

I'm starting to feel like Nicholas Roeg shares more in common with Stanley Kubrick than he does with any other filmmaker. Exhibit A is The Man Who Fell to Earth, a sci-fi movie that's totally unconcerned with being science fiction. Roeg's film is about isolation, but it's not a rejection of modernity in the way films about isolation usually are. The movie's core message attempts to speak more to humanity in its inherent nature, something with which Kubrick was constantly engaged, from his first masterpiece, Paths of Glory, to his last, Eyes Wide Shut. Kubrick famously said that editing was the only artform unique to film, so I'd be curious to know what he thought of Roeg's work, much of it made parallel to Kubrick's own most innovative and iconoclastic output (ironically, Roeg was briefly tapped for the adaptation of A Clockwork Orange that Kubrick eventually took on). Certainly both directors had a unique style that was impossible to mistake for someone else's, though Roeg's was the most consistent and blatant.

Roeg's aesthetic - established in so many other films in the director's career - is intact here, with wild temporal and perspective shifts and avant editing that leaves the viewer unsteady. But I still maintain that Bad Timing is a more effective (and affecting) use of his skills. The Man Who Fell to Earth is a very cold movie, or at least that's how it seemed to me. This is something Kubrick's films were often wrongly accused of, but I've never had the problem with Roeg's work until now. There's no point in the film where you aren't aware you are watching David Bowie, and Roeg seems too hung up on interacting with the science fiction genre he is skirting around to bother creating a cohesive whole. The message of The Man Who Fell to Earth is an intense and complex one, but the presentation gives the viewer the same sense of distance from the film that Roeg is arguing we all share with each other.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

#441: The Small Back Room

(Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, 1949)

I'm not really sure why Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger chose to follow up their masterpiece The Red Shoes with this small character study. Maybe they were eager to do something a little less ambitious - which is not to say this movie isn't attempting to reach within its genre. Powell and Pressburger were certainly never able to be pigeonholed into a style of film, and unlike a great American contemporary like Howard Hawks they seemed to float between genres less because of studio contract options and more because they genuinely wanted to stretch and the relative freedom of the British system allowed them to do so.

The Small Back Room is an appropriate companion piece to the recent Oscar winner The Hurt Locker. Both films delve into the psyche of bomb technicians specifically and soldiers in general, though the more recent film is making a broader statement where The Small Back Room is very much focused on one man, almost to a degree that recalls a film like The Lost Weekend, where another protagonist struggled with alcoholism, only Wilder's film was vastly more heavy handed and overacted (as Wilder himself would later admit). Centered around a man who has lost a foot and struggles with non-stop pain - previously alleviated through whiskey, which led to alcoholism. Now he trudges along in a bureaucratic wasteland where incompetence reigns and his cynicism has kicked in. Running through the film as a side plot, a British officer comes to him to get his opinion on bombs that have been dropping in the British countryside, apparently sent by Nazi planes to terrorize the British.

This latter plot is far more interesting than the main plot, and it's a shame it didn't take up more of the film. The rest of the more personal elements and politics were almost entirely dull - it felt like a well-written novel that simply didn't translate to the screen (this was a novel, by the way). I have a lot of respect for Powell and Pressburger, and the bigger moments in the film - most notably the awesome dream sequence and the bomb defusing scene - did capture my attention. But the rest of the movie was overly melodramatic and uninteresting.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

#222: Diary of a Country Priest

(Robert Bresson, 1951)

Bresson is the French Ozu. Both directors zero in on the most elemental aspects of their respective culture and present meditations on them in clean, purposefully simplistic ways in order to deliver far from simplistic climactic moments. This comparison has been made countless times, most famously by Paul Schrader in his well-regarded work of film theory, Transcendental Style in Film. But it's worth making here because both directors are an acquired taste that is difficult to approach without measuring their work against the hype.

I first encountered Bresson in high school when a teacher introduced me to A Man Escaped. It took two viewings to understand the reputation of the film, but once I got it I wondered how I had gone so long without it. Bresson's work - never more than in that masterpiece - is at its core a meditation on existentialism in the original sense, which is to say it is infused with Christianity and the nature of man. This religious aspect was never more literal than it is in Diary of a Country Priest, another of Bresson's most well-regarded films (and one of the few I haven't previously watched).

The film is quite literally as advertised, charting the ups and downs (mostly the latter) of a young priest placed in a parish in a small town generally uninterested in his presence.  The easiest comparison to Diary of a Country Priest that can be made is to Bergman's Winter Light. Both films deal with priests struggling with their inability to help their parish, and both films feature a suicide the respective priests were unable to prevent. But Bergman's Winter Light asks for meaning in a meaningless world, while Bresson seems to be constantly reaching for a divinity that is right in front of his protagonist's face - the film famously concludes that "All is grace." This might be part of the reason why it failed to move me in the way Winter Light did, but I also think Bresson's films - like Ozu's, and unlike Bergman's by the way - need a running start to jump into their rhythms at the right time. If you are out of step when entering his world, it can seem like a very lonely place.

Side note: I just noticed that this film sits next to Ikiru in the collection in terms of release order. Remind me not to attempt that double feature.

Monday, May 2, 2011

#23: RoboCop

(Paul Verhoeven, 1987)

Here's a broad, totally subjective and hyperbolic statement: RoboCop is the best action movie ever made. Let me finish.

Created at the peak of 80s movie excess, RoboCop is simultaneously a hilarious send-up of the genre and a perfect representation of what it does best, both sociologically and viscerally. As directed by Paul Verhoeven, the film takes on a delirious quality, whether it's the Kentucky Fried Movie-style commercials or the strangely haunting sequence in which we are privy to the moments which will eventually be erased from RoboCop's brain when he goes live. The film stands upon a foundation of hatred towards the decade that birthed it, skewering corporate culture, urban initiatives, and the quick fix. But it's also an insanely good time at the movies, complete with over-the-top gore effects which work both as psychological releases and as old-fashioned wtfs.

The film's main villain in terms of generating action is a secondary role player in the plot. Played extremely well by character actor (and That 70s Show dad) Kurtwood Smith, the rapist/cop killer bad guy on the loose is a classic 80s trope stolen from 70s films like Dirty Harry and perfected in early templates for the modern action film like 48 Hours. RoboCop manages to connect this crowd-pleasing baddie to the real villain in the film, the gloriously named Dick Jones, the vice president of the evil corporation at the center of the plot. This switch allows the film to have its shoot-em-up cake and eat it, too, by featuring plenty of action while focusing the animosity on the man behind the curtain.

This focus on the corporate bad guy helps the film deal with the two main political issues the film wants to explore: the merging of public good and private gain and the deterioration of American society in order to enrich the privileged. Both elements were front and center during the 80s in American politics and cinema. The key to dealing with serious issues like this in an action film is to seamlessly infuse them into the plot, and Dick Jones (along with the neighborhood where Murphy lived, the new city that's going to be built, and bombed out alternate world Detroit) helps the film do this very successfully. The film also works on a psychological level though, in a pseudo-Cronenberg way, by keeping at its emotional core the story of a man murdered and pulled from his family being reborn as a cyborg - but, you know, that can love. It manages to never seem sappy in this regard by avoiding making a point about it in even the subtle ways Cronenberg seeks to subvert our conventions, instead saving this aspect of the film for a character arc that ties the film's plot together and keeps viewers invested.

There are few action films that generate solid, original action moments, and even fewer that manage to balance superb action with an intelligent commentary (Verhoeven has made two more of these: Total Recall and the underrated Starship Troopers). The film manages to do this so effortlessly that it seems especially frustrating that so many of the alternatives cannot even pretend to attempt it. There have been other superb action films in the modern era - John Woo's The Killer and Hard Boiled, Terminator 2, and The Matrix come to mind - but none of these movies succeed in every area in which the action film thrives: political or sociological statement, character evolution, vicious satire, and dirty fun fuck-shit-up-ability. In contemporary film, the action movie has evolved into a special effects extravaganza that has allowed comic book movies to come to the forefront thanks to new special effects capabilities. But the action genre is still fundamentally about larger-than-life situations that can be related to an every day existence. It is the fundamental spirit of the action movie that is so in line with RoboCop, and it's what makes the film as relevant, thrilling, and provocative today as when it was first released.