Wednesday, October 31, 2012

#586: Island of Lost Souls

(Erle C. Kenton, 1932)

Island of Lost Souls is perhaps the best example of just how much sci-fi and horror have changed from their original talkie incarnation in the early 30s. While films like King Kong and The Most Dangerous Game are arguably better movies, Island of Lost Souls is more provocative, at least in its time. This makes it not just an old-fashioned adventure movie like those mentioned above, but a movie about taboo subjects that pushed the envelope for audiences upon its initial release. While a movie like King Kong is best compared to something like Avatar - a blockbuster adventure film with a relatively gentle social message - Island of Lost Souls was its era's House on a Haunted Hill, a chilling message about man's potential for evil.

What's funny about this characterization is that the film itself is incredibly tame. The creatures, ostensibly horrifying in 1932, border on parody, while Charles Laughton's Dr. Moreau (a character who would be mangled by Marlon Brando in the 90s adaptation) is more reminiscent of Sidney Greenstreet's character Ferrari in Casablanca than of any evil genius in later horror films. It's hard to think of any other film that was so controversial when it was released and so tame now. This separates the film's intellectual and historical appeal almost entirely from the experience of watching it, with a few exceptions. The most notable is the scene in which Parker kisses the Panther Woman before realizing she is an animal. His anger at himself, which he then directs towards Moreau, saying he could forgive him everything else but not this, makes for a chilling moment of man's ability to compartmentalize tragedy and injustice.

Mostly, though, Island of Lost Souls is a pretty good time at the movies. While I enjoyed watching it, I doubt I'll ever need to see it again, something that sets it apart from The Most Dangerous Game, a far superior early 30s horror/adventure film, and a Criterion release long overdue for an upgrade.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

#599: Vanya on 42nd Street

(Louis Malle, 1994)

I don't like plays, mainly because I don't like theater acting. It's the larger-than-life emoting and unrealistic body language that does it for me. There's a reason "theatricality" is generally an insult in film. The transfer from stage to screen generally fails because the mediums are extremely different, as most actors who have done both will tell you (there's a great Susan Sontag essay about how books are much closer to films than plays are, btw). This makes it a little surprising how many film directors got their start in theater (and how many continued to work on the stage late into their careers, with probably the most notable being Ingmar Bergman), but direction in a lot of ways has a lot more to do with vision than any particular skill set.

Vanya on 42nd Street was created out of a series of performances Andre Gregory directed of the play Uncle Vanya in a run down theater in Times Square. Rather than put up full shows with costumes and sets, the actors simply performed rehearsals of the full play in their normal clothes. Malle's film adds another layer of dramatism, since the rehearsal itself is now the subject of the story rather than the play alone. It should also be noted that the play itself was written in Russia and the actors are performing David Mamet's adaptation of the literal English translation, making what ends up on the screen even further removed from the original context of the play What results is certainly one of the most interesting adaptations of a play ever filmed, at least conceptually. Malle uses the simple concept of the movie to deliver a compelling meditation on acting, theater, cinema, reality vs. drama, and finally New York, which is only seen in exterior in the brief opening sequence but remains an ever-present character thanks to its crumbling theater that houses the rehearsal and the way the lives and dedication of the actors speaks to the atmosphere of New York in the early 90s.

But just because you love the concept, it doesn't mean you don't still have to watch the thing, and that's where the film becomes more difficult for me. Sitting through any performance of Uncle Vanya, regardless of the format, means I'm probably going to be turned off a little bit. There were a bunch of little things that grated on me here that are typical of theater acting - the pointing at someone when you agree with what they are saying, the exaggerated hand motions, the awkward blocking. Despite this, by the time Julianne Moore and Brooke Smith begin to bond, I was wrapped up in the performances, which are uniformly excellent. Malle's direction is intently focused on these performances at the expense of anything else, which is really as it should be, as this is a concert film of sorts. I ended up finding Vanya more enjoyable than I first feared, but it was still somewhat of a disappointment as my final Malle film in the Collection.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

#636: Heaven's Gate

(Michael Cimino, 1980)

Heaven's Gate is arguably the most notorious Hollywood movie in history, a film that some argue singlehandedly ended the auteurist golden age of the late-60s and 70s. There have been other massive critical and commercial disasters before and since - think films that followed in its footsteps like Waterworld (which actually made money), Cutthroat Island, and Gigli. But a whole book was written about Heaven's Gate and the disaster of its (un)making. An entire career was essentially ruined, as the Oscar-winning director Michael Cimino never recovered, while its studio, United Artists, similarly unraveled. And this isn't even mentioning the New York Times review from Vincent Canby, possibly the most hate-filled, gleefully nasty review in the paper's history (to his credit, Roger Ebert's review isn't exactly the friendliest reception).

This makes the gradual reevaluation of the film that has taken place over the past thirty years (with a real escalation over the past decade) a pretty big surprise. This sort of thing just doesn't happen that often (it did on a smaller scale recently with the (imho) deservedly overlooked John Carter), but it especially doesn't happen with a disaster as massive and high-profile as this. Of course, as I pointed out, there's never really been a disaster as massive and high-profile as this.

So when Criterion announced they would be releasing this nearly four-hour monster, the first question that popped into my head was how much the context informed their selection. Obviously, viewed on its own merits, they deemed the film of a high enough quality to merit a release - Criterion isn't in the business of releasing films they consider failures, regardless of their historical significance. But is this the release of a masterpiece on par with the great films of its era? Or is it a mere call for a reappraisal of an unfairly maligned film, a chance for film lovers to see the movie divorced of its negative history?

After viewing the film, I respect the argument for the former, but I tend to lean towards the latter. I had been curious about the film ever since I read about it in numerous film history books (including the brilliantly trashy Easy Riders Raging Bulls) but had always been daunted by the blistering reviews and intimidating running time. Make no mistake: Heaven's Gate is long. Really long. And it's not fast-paced. Still, with the exception of the opening sequence, which seems somewhat superfluous and is destined to turn many people against the film before it even begins, I have a hard time pointing to any specific scenes I think shouldn't be included. Interestingly, Ebert points to narration about why Kristofferson goes west in his review that isn't there in the full-length version - because it doesn't need to be, as Kristofferson explains his actions in a scene that was apparently cut for the shorter version which received wide release.

This scene, in which Kristofferson speaks to a man at a train station, is also a great example of the sheer scope of Heaven's Gate. It's no wonder this movie became one of the most expensive ever made, as the number of extras alone just milling through the background at the train station in full period clothing (not to mention the massive sets that were built to function as a background for the station - onscreen for probably twenty seconds) is high enough that this scene probably could have financed a whole movie. Extras abound in Heaven's Gate. Either they recycled people for different scenes, or every person who was alive in 1980 is in this movie - in elaborately made costumes. The dance scene during the opening sequence of the film is wholly superfluous and extravagant - at least a hundred people in gowns and suits, dancing and twirling in unison, urged on by a full marching band, almost totally unrelated to the other 150 minutes of the film save for a few characters and a vague thematic connection to civilization's ruling elite.

But measuring this epic prologue next to what comes later helps the film find a balance between the huddled masses and their waiting oppressors. When the focus turns to the immigrants destined to be destroyed, their overblown emotions and indistinguishable faces and characters seem almost backwards. Yet this could quite easily be said about the crucial scene in which Sam Waterston initially lays out the case for killing the farmers, as rich men huddle together and mumble calls of "here here!" It's a reminder that Heaven's Gate is a film about a land teeming with people, ready to explode both geographically and economically. Life was cheap, just as wealth was pre-ordained. One of the film's flaws - its lack of fleshed out characters beyond the four or five key characters - becomes a powerful depiction of the massive vision and prerequisite conditions behind manifest destiny. Both the film's length and massive budget are essential to this significant accomplishment.

Still, Heaven's Gate remains unforgivably bloated. It's loosely edited, saddled with an affected mandolin score, and alternately over-serious and too slick for its own good. Cimino's dialog has too many Hollywood-style quotable exchanges to be realistic, but his characters lack the relatability that is often Hollywood's strength. Kristofferson's character is the film's center, making Heaven's Gate another in the long line of films that has chosen the perspective of a rebellious outcast of the evil oppressors, rather than a true member of the oppressed - this has most notably been taken up recently by the truly execrable The Help. This choice was perhaps inevitable, but it's ultimately the film's downfall. The movie wants to be ambitious and meaningful, but wants to do it within the confines of the system against which it is supposedly rebelling. It makes the journey at the core of the film totally insignificant, not just because our protagonist is already changed but because it guarantees that the film's politics will fall on deaf ears.

This failure is reminiscent of another massive and disappointing 19th-century epic, Martin Scorsese's Gangs of New York. That film's awkward love story seemed jammed into the story Scorsese really wanted to tell - about New York's coming of age and the draft riots during the Civil War - whereas Cimino had the power to make exactly the film he wanted to make (something that ironically cost Scorsese that same luxury two decades later). Still, what Scorsese gained with his limitations was the need for a tight narrative that kept his film focused and constantly churning. Heaven's Gate obviously comes from a different era when films had greater leeway to be lyrical and leisurely paced, but Cimino doesn't use this pace to his advantage as much as he simply takes all the narrative slack he can get.

This might be less of a problem if the film was a visual feast on par with Days of Heaven, but the movie is a bit of a dusty mess. As in Cimino's best film, The Deer Hunter, what's most impressive about the look of the film is what the director has put in front of the camera, rather than where he's put the camera or how he shoots it. I'd be surprised if Cimino intended the movie to be beautiful - everything is dirty, smoke-filled, dark, as if the country was emerging from sleep. This is a tough palette to maintain over four hours, and while it's an impressive accomplishment, I don't think the movie is necessarily better served by it.

I've been taking Heaven's Gate apart for a while here, but I wouldn't call it a bad film. It's just that the chance that its ambition would be fully realized was certainly slim, and what's made it onto the screen confirms how big a gamble this was. As pure entertainment, judging it as a film experience, I think Heaven's Gate is worthy of its Criterion release. But I think that's mainly for its scope and, ironically, its smaller moments that serve as the glue holding together the big weighty plot - the final sequence a few years in the future is a strong example of these well-executed moments. As we move further away from the context around the film's creation and initial reception, I think it will be these two things that keep it relevant and increasingly worthy of the reappraisal this release will afford it.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

#404: Robinson Crusoe on Mars

(Byron Haskin, 1964)

It would be easy to compare Robinson Crusoe on Mars to similar dated sci-fi in the Collection like Equinox and the Monsters and Madmen boxset. And in many ways, this would be an apt comparison: there is low and high art in all of these films and the passion of their creators shines through very clearly. They all work on two levels, since they could just as easily appeal to an eight-year-old (at least one whose senses haven't been dulled by the modern bend towards bright flashing lights and non-stop inanity) and a thirty-year-old cinema nerd - though of course it's arguable if these are different people I've just described.

Yet Robinson Crusoe on Mars, despite its creaky name, is something different from those other films. In fact - although its plot is directly cribbed from a well-known and very straightforward story - its visuals and pacing are more reminiscent of a different kind of sci-fi film made just a few years later: 2001: A Space Odyssey. Although that film's technological predictions turned out to be wishful thinking, this film's visual palette has only been surpassed by the reality of what we've seen beamed back from light years away. Robinson Crusoe on Mars is a small movie in human emotion and scope - a tale of one man and his loneliness. But visually, this is one of the great epics of sci-fi, a stunning and cannily re-imagined portrait of space and the red planet for the technicolor era. There are moments here that took my breath away, in all that phrase's purple glory.

At this point, Robinson Crusoe on Mars is the final movie of this type that I have to watch in the Collection (though Island of Lost Souls hails from a related genre). The inclusion of such films makes the Criterion umbrella both broader in scope and more legitimate as an arguable "canon" of film. It is films like this that had  a direct influence on the filmmakers who transformed American cinema in the 80s and 90s (for better or worse), but they also stand on their own as works of art. Robinson Crusoe on Mars is the best example of this in the Collection. This is a must-watch for any lover of the visual spectacle of cinema.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

#155: Tokyo Olympiad

(Kon Ichikawa, 1965)

Tokyo Olympiad has been out of print for five years and typically runs you about $200 for a used copy. Even worse, there has been no new release on DVD for western audiences, making this the new Salo (pre-re-release of course) in terms of being nearly impossible to see through any legal means in the US. This is a shame, as it's one of the best sports journalism documentaries I've ever seen.

Choosing Ichikawa to film your Olympics - ostensibly to glorify Japan and its hosting at long last of the grand world games - was certainly an odd choice. It's very nearly like America hiring David Lynch to film the '96 games. Unsurprisingly, the Olympic committee got what they really should have expected, and heavily edited this nearly 3 hour epic to give it a more conventional feel. Criterion's restoration of the original work reveals just what you might expect from Ichikawa: a film much more concerned with the process - the pushing of the human body and mind to excel and how will interacts with physicality - than the outcome of any one sport.

The closest any segments get to a conventional depiction of the competition are the suspenseful pole vault duel that lasts into the night and the much duller women's volleyball face-off in which Japan wins the gold. The latter almost feels like Ichikawa forced it into the film to placate the homers that were looking for a rah-rah moment. The film shines much brighter when zeroing in on a runner's body, shown from the waist up gliding through mid-air, or a rifleman indenting his cheek as he leans over his weapon. These moments attain a sort of elementary beauty that is devoid of the marketing, mythmaking, and over-importance of the typical sports document. Tokyo Olympiad becomes entirely separated from the event it is supposedly depicting - even as the world of 1964 looms large. This is an observation of the diversity of Earth, the breadth of skill and talent we have accumulated, and the remarkable adaptability of the human form. Of the four Ichikawa films in the Collection, I think it's undoubtedly the best, and it's worth seeking out in whatever form you can find it.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

#415: The Naked Prey

(Cornel Wilde, 1966)

The Naked Prey is a wholly improbable, totally outdated bit of pulpy fun. This is assuming you can get over the absurdity of the basic premise, which assumes that our precious hero is not only such an outdoorsman that he is able to withstand the harsh African wilderness with nothing but a handful of items, he's also better at hand-to-hand combat than African warriors that have trained for their whole lives. This also assumes you aren't looking for much character development (or even names), and your need for story is limited to "man runs for life."

Then of course there are the racial politics, which are... interesting. The Naked Prey isn't an inherently racist film, though I do think some of the leaps of logic needed to fully engage with the film depend on an assumption of mental if not moral superiority (it doesn't help, either, that the film was financed by the South African government). It reminds me of the term "colored" - it's not necessary an offensive term, but it's anachronistic status forces a reminder of the less enlightened times from which it is native. The Naked Prey might not be overtly racist - in fact, Wilde goes out of his way to have his character save and befriend an African child, who then saves him in return. But the film would never be made today in its current form - a muddy indication that something isn't quite right here.

All of this sort of adds to the historical appeal of The Naked Prey. Because the film itself is so primal - both technically and textually - the idea that the cultural subtext might highlight something darker about the 1960s or about cinema's depiction of black people underscores its blunt immediacy. It makes for a fascinating viewing that helps fill the void between the many leaps of logic.

The Naked Prey was recently the recipient of a bit of heat thanks to an episode of Mad Men where Peggy went to see the film. It's no surprise that a show about male identity would reference this masculine manifesto, but I doubt too much should be read into it beyond the basic connection Weiner and crew (most of whom were kids when The Naked Prey ran on TV) have towards material of that era. That's the thing about the film - every time you think there's something more to it, it stays almost frustratingly - but admirably - simple. Bringing this film to the Collection was not just a case for more exposure (it had yet to be released on home video), it was almost certainly a play for the more idiosyncratic side of filmmaking, a world of cult followings and quirky one-offs that can never be duplicated.

#203: The BRD Trilogy

(Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1978-1982)

Of any boxset I've watched during this adventure, the widest gaps in viewing each film came with the BRD Trilogy. I first saw The Marriage of Maria Braun in college, then watched it a couple years later to see if I had under-appreciated it (I had, but not by too much). Veronika Voss was one of the first films I watched when beginning this blog, way back in January, 2010. For some reason, Criterion seems to have streaming rights for that film (I watched it on Netflix, but it's now also on their Hulu Plus page) but not for Lola, which is why it took me this long to get around to completing the series.

This broad timeline makes it a little more difficult to reflect on the overall series, but I think three things unquestionably unite the set: tragic female protagonists, a setting in post-WWII Germany, and a pure love for film of the era, particularly in the Sirk-style colors of Lola and the noir-drenched visuals of Veronika Voss. The essay accompanying the set makes a compelling case for the series as metaphoric steps towards a prosperous Germany unshackled from its past. This is certainly present in all of these films, especially in the ending of each. But I like to think of this trilogy as primarily cinematic in intention - not an empty stylistic experiment like Grindhouse, but a purposeful deconstruction of the era through film. Fassbinder has always seemed to me to be the pulpiest of any high-art filmmaker, and while I might have enjoyed World on a Wire more, this set is where his grandest ambitions are fully represented. I might not really love any of these films, but I don't think you can say you've completed a grand overview of cinematic history without watching them. In many ways, they define post-war German cinema.

Here are the links to individual reviews:
The Marriage of Maria Braun (no review)
Veronika Voss

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

#206: Lola

(Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1981)

Lola is the third film in Fassbinder's BRD Trilogy, though it was made second. Ironically, though it is the last in the series conceptually, it was the first made with an eye towards the trilogy - as far as I've read Fassbinder had no plans for a unified triptych until after The Marriage of Maria Braun.

So what emerges from this new direction, and why did Fassbinder consider it to be the third film? There are a number of potential reasons, but I think the best case can be made for the ending of Lola being purposefully indicative of the next 20 years of German history. If in many ways the final moments of The Marriage of Maria Braun were meant to reflect upon modern German history's struggle with its immediate past, Lola marrying von Bohm while continuing her affair with Schuckert is an obvious nod to the complicated deal-making and corruption behind Germany's post-war success. Veronika Voss is perhaps the least obvious pick for a companion piece to these two politically charged endings, but the power Voss's doctors wield over her ties neatly into the various pressures the two other leading women feel as they hurtle towards their tragic fates.

I wrote in my Veronika Voss post that Lola was based on The Blue Angel - or at least the book it was based on. It turns out that, according to the Criterion essay, this is only half true: the film is a rough adaptation that changed a huge amount of the story, not the least of which is of course the setting, as the film takes place in an era a generation removed from even the film adaptation. Still, despite its strong metaphoric significance for that era, it might be the source material that keeps the film timeless, allowing a very specific fable to speak to the larger interplay between money and principles, love and career, ultimately morality and desire. Lola is ultimately entertaining because it doesn't present a clear condemnation of either side. Fassbinder seems to me much more interested in observing, perhaps even skewering, human nature as a whole.

Friday, October 5, 2012

#617: And Everything Is Going Fine

(Steven Soderbergh, 2010)

And Everything Is Going Fine is the rare biographical documentary that seems both impressively insightful about its subject and ingeniously constructed. Soderbergh manages to deliver this without shooting a single thing, as all the footage here is from Gray's life and career up until his death in the mid 2000s. In fact, Gray is practically the only person who talks through most of the movie, and the bulk of the film is constructed with Gray's performances on stage (which means this isn't necessarily a complete look at his actual life, but instead a carefully selected approximation of a facsimile - but a cool one).

One really smart choice Soderbergh makes is to tell the story chronologically - not in terms of when the footage was shot, but in terms of when whatever Gray is talking about actually happened in his life. So while the scenes shift from grainy VHS to film to an E! interview, the story goes in a straight line. (By the way, can you imagine someone like Spalding Gray being interviewed on E! today?) This keeps you engaged even as the footage ping pongs around his career.

One thing I didn't know that the film helped me understand was just how revolutionary Gray's act was. It seems like such a simple and natural thing - go on stage and tells unadorned stories about yourself - that you would think people had been doing it forever, and in some ways they were. But reducing it to such a basic equation made his work shockingly fresh. The fact that his perspective was so unique helped prevent others from easily replicating it. Although I already liked Gray thanks to Gray's Anatomy, this documentary made me appreciate him even more, making it a fine companion to that film. That Soderbergh was able to construct such a satisfying documentary makes its separate release justifiable.

A side note: This is the 400th movie I've posted about on this blog. It's been nearly three years since I started this journey (really more since I've been watching Criterion movies for virtually my entire adult life) and I have fewer than 60 movies left. Although this number continues to tick up every month when the new releases are announced, it has steadily decreased to the point where I can genuinely say the end is near. Based on my label count to the left of this post, I've considered 102 of the 400 movies I've reviewed to be "five star" films (this average is a bit inflated by movies I had seen before). Whatever that arbitrary measure is worth, that means just following the spine numbers has led me to more cinematic epiphanies than I could have ever imagined. If anyone is reading this out there, I hope I've pointed you towards something you might not have otherwise picked up that you loved, or at least gave you a different perspective on a movie you like that you hadn't considered. For me personally, the ability to go back and look at my initial thoughts on every film I've watched has been invaluable - this is a collection of writing I'll never stop returning to, and even though I love getting paid cold hard cash to write (ah, sweet cash), this certainly ranks with my books as the most satisfying works I've produced in my life to this point. All I can hope for now is to finally see this thing through to the end - hopefully with at least another 15 or so masterpieces waiting for me!

#618: Gray's Anatomy

(Steven Soderbergh, 1997)

Gray's Anatomy is either going to drive you insane or delight you. This stems entirely from how appealing you find Spalding Gray - not surprising, considering the fact that the film is largely an adaptation of a one-man show. Gray's success as a performer and artist was primarily in this format, which consisted of a long monolog in the style of a story about his own life. Gray had already made two film adaptations of his work when he collaborated with Soderbergh here, but those two films (which I have yet to see) were apparently more straightforward filmed documents of his theatrical performances - essentially concert films, with an audience and no special effects.

Soderbergh chose to toss this out the window for his adaptation, keeping only the nearly iconic image of Gray sitting at his table with a microphone. Around him - both physically through the use of projections and rudimentary effects and cinematically through the use of editing - the director has placed interview subjects who had eye-related health issues (the subject of this monolog) and various embellishments like smoke, extreme lighting, and slow pans from one Gray finishing up a point to another already launching into the next segment. It's a playful and creative approach to Gray's work - one that's reminiscent of Errol Morris's documentary style, particularly in The Thin Blue Line - that doesn't abandon what works about the core material.

It's this material - both as text and in the manner in which it is delivered - that is going to be polarizing. Gray comes from a long theater background, and his performance style is often overdramatic and exaggerated - it's not a big jump to spoken-word. Similarly, his narratives are heavily neurotic and self-absorbed (although this is essentially unavoidable with a 90-minute monolog). Personally, once I had adjusted to the style, I found Gray to be absorbing and charming in the film. But it's not going to be for everyone.

As for the story itself, I don't think there are significant insights into the human condition to be found, but I did find it moving and entertaining. The process of moving from realizing he had a problem to seeking out help to coming to terms with his options and finally accepting the inevitable (risky surgery) was both interesting and somewhat enlightening, though again I'm not sure you can pull a whole lot out of it. Gray's Anatomy ended up being a fun way to spend an hour and a half.

#574: Life During Wartime

(Todd Solondz, 2010)

Life During Wartime has its moments, but overall I think it is a middling addition to Todd Solondz's catalog and one of the weakest recent entries in the Criterion Collection. This is especially true because, even though the film can conceivably stand on its own, it's not fully appreciated without having seen Solondz's earlier, better film, Happiness (although I also don't think that film has aged very well). This is a sequel of sorts to that film, set about ten years later but starring an entirely different cast in the same roles. This is undoubtedly an interesting idea, especially because the ensembles were so accomplished in both films - it's a treat to see all of these actors' takes on each character and how they differ, both because of the elapsed time and because of their different approach.

Unfortunately, Life During Wartime suffers from a lot of the same afflictions that threaten to overwhelm Happiness but have plagued Solondz's later work. The director's interest in the taboo makes his work interesting in many ways, but his situations have moved from believably outrageous to simply ludicrous. Alison Janney's character here is particularly difficult to buy, but there are whole sections that come off as inartfully constructed intellectual exercises in making the audiences squirm. Even worse, they don't particularly succeed, as scenes like the one in which a thirteen-year-old boy asked his mom what a man does to a boy when he rapes him are so obviously absurd and awkwardly wedged into the film as an obvious plot device that I was left wondering why someone wasn't reigning in Solondz's eccentricities a bit more, rather than being genuinely shocked.

There are, however, some really harrowing and authentic moments in the film. The one that stands out most is the meeting of the pedophile from Happiness with his son, now a college student struggling to move past his father's crimes. Because the scenes with these two characters were easily the most disturbing moments in the earlier film, this meeting has a special significance, and their interaction feels entirely earned and real. This moment was almost enough to redeem the entire movie for me. Ultimately, though, Life During Wartime does not work especially well as a stand alone piece, and while I think a good case could be made for the representation of Solondz in the Collection, I'd much rather see Happiness or his one really great movie, Welcome to the Doll House, as his representative work.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

#144: Loves of a Blonde

(Milos Forman, 1965)

As noted in the essay that accompanied Loves of a Blonde oh so many years ago, the film is essentially divided into three acts. The first is a wacky mixer where awkward older soldiers mingle with shy and uninterested factory-bound women who have been shipped into a small town to balance out the gender ratio. The second is a more intimate look at one of the girls being seduced (or, really, prodded and cajoled) by a musician that played at the dance. The third and most appealing story is of the girl leaving the town to see the musician in Prague, where she ends up in an awkward situation with his parents.

All three of these stories have their charms, and Forman does two things extremely well throughout the film: merging plot and character motivation with social and political commentary quite naturally, and balancing on the line of quirky characters in over-the-top situations and authentic depictions of the realities of Czechoslovakia circa 1965. But its ultimately the humanity that shines through - both with the doomed couple (his awkward game is only matched by her naive pouting) and the boy's parents - certainly a stereotype by now but pulled off so well here that they seem like fresh and native characters in the film. The success of the depiction of both of these relationships is what makes the final sequence the best. It's funny and poignant in a very effortless way.

I've always had high esteem for Forman - he made a great film in each of the last three decades of the 20th century - and I enjoyed this film even more than Firemen's Ball. I think this is because of the almost neo-realist eye Forman trains on his characters. The film's plot and narrative style reminded me fondly of the Olmi duo of films Criterion released a few years after this, particularly I Fidanzati. Both of those movies feature big awkward dance parties, but the love story of the later film has many of the characteristics of the far less-romantic interactions here. Both films are very aware of the social situations which surround their characters, and these situations are not just used as a backdrop and/or metaphor for their characters actions, but are actually meant to have an impact on their behavior. Without the plant in Loves of a Blonde - not to mention the reason for the plant existing in the first place - the girl's decision to leave for Prague would make much less sense.

I bet this movie would improve with multiple viewings. At this point, this humanist and socially aware approach to the material is the most striking thing about the film.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

#620: La promesse

(Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne, 1996)

Like Le Havre, La Promesse is a small french-language film about undocumented immigrants and the natives who sympathize with their plight. But while both films avoid the pitfalls of the socially conscious film - most notably the potential to become unrelentingly dark - Le Havre is slight where La Promesse is deep; abstract where La Promesse is vivid and real; carefully composed where La Promesse is messy. It's arguable whether it makes this the better film, but I have a hard time believing any viewer wouldn't be more affected by it.

It's no surprise that the Dardennes were documentary filmmakers before La promesse - the film's aesthetic is meant to evoke reality and indicate to the viewer that they are as close as they can be to living within the subjects' world. But what's much more impressive is how structurally intricate the film is, both as a character study of the young boy and an exploration of the immigrant experience. This is a reminder that "natural" almost never means simple, and often a work that feels like there is less artifice and more "authenticity" in the narrative requires a much surer and more intellectually prepared hand to guide it. I don't know if I'd say La promesse transcends its humble ambition as a work of art, but its unquestionable that there should more movies like La promesse made, and if that happened film would be in a much stronger place.

Monday, October 1, 2012

#250: John Cassavetes: Five Films

(John Cassavetes, 1959-1976)

This set is one of the hardest for me to talk about in the Collection because I will never be able to do it justice. My favorite John Cassavetes movie is still Rosemary's Baby, and I doubt it will be eclipsed any time soon by any of the films Cassavetes directed himself. I just haven't found a way into his work, even if I have enjoyed a handful of them a great deal, with the one I had seen before, A Woman Under the Influence being my favorite.

I talked more about the phenomenon of writing about something that didn't have a major impact on the writer in my Opening Night post, so I'll just say that just because I wouldn't ever be interested in buying this set doesn't mean I don't think Criterion should have released it, and it certainly makes for an impressive collection. Unlike Ozu or Dreyer, Cassavetes remains distant for me, a hugely praised icon in film that I still don't love. You aren't going to love every piece of art in the canon or every artist that's been lionized, so the important thing is just to continue keeping an open mind about even work you've already been exposed to and hope you can get the most out of whatever has been produced.

Links to the individual reviews:

A Woman Under the Influence (no review)
The Killing of a Chinese Bookie
Opening Night
A Constant Forge

#256: A Constant Forge

(Charles Kiselyak, 2000)

My Metier, the absorbing documentary covering Carl Th. Dreyer's career, was a little over an hour and a half long. A Constant Forge, covering John Cassavetes's "life and art," is more than twice that length at a full 200 minutes. Although they both made about the same amount of movies, I will admit that the core of Dreyer's career (the films he made from The Passion of Joan of Arc on) consisted of only six movies, while 10 of the 12 films Cassavetes made are considered the meat of his work. But still, even after accounting for Cassavetes's huge position in American independent filmmaking, Dreyer is undoubtedly the more dominant figure in film.

So what necessitates this enormous length, a length longer than any of the director's own films? Not much, in my opinion, other than the desire to cram as much of each interview Kiselyak got into the film. While I appreciate the structure of the documentary, which largely eschews a straight chronological telling of his career, the technique is still extremely conventional, with an assortment of talking heads, clips from his work, various production photos, and only the occasional video footage of Cassavetes working. There is also a voice over of an actor reading Cassavetes's own words. All this makes the movie a Cassavetes-fan-only release, and the full three and a half hours was not easy for me to get through.

Having said that, everything that is covered in the documentary is interesting and insightful with regards to both filmmaking in general and acting specifically (which can also be said of Cassavetes's work itself). And, really, if you're buying a five disc set of Cassavetes's core films, you are pretty much guaranteed to find this documentary to be a valuable addition to the set. So while someone like me - an admirer of Cassavetes who lacks an emotional connection to his films - would find this to be an overlong film with mild appeal, its inclusion in the set is a big plus for anyone who wants to go deeper into the work of one of the major cult figures in American cinema.