Monday, January 06, 2014


Movies/TV I saw last month...

American Hustle (2013)—I like Goodfellas and Boogie Nights too, so happy for the reverberations encountered here, plus the script has some nifty turns and twists. But I thought this one basically lived and died by its performances, which were uneven to say the least. Amy Adams is the best, just naturally working the role and the narrative. Christian Bale is doing one of those showy "stretch" roles but he's good. Bradley Cooper—was he still playing Silver Linings Playbook? Did he not know it was another movie? Jennifer Lawrence induced cringes constantly, though in fairness the role was conceived and written too poorly for anyone to salvage it probably. A disappointment though not without its pleasures. By definition, any movie with a disco scene and "I Feel Love" can't be all bad.
Blue Is the Warmest Color (2013)—I understand there are legitimate problems here as the director of this three-hour French film about adolescents and lesbians, Abdellatif Kechiche, is a man, and the woman who wrote the graphic novel on which it's based, Julie March, is complaining that he got it wrong. More: The title is not so much misleading as it is beside the point—the original, The Life of Adele - Chapters 1 & 2, is better and has the merit of being accurate and straightforward. I don't care about the production design (though it's very handsome and blue). It is also too long and the places to cut it are obvious (rhymes with "hex scenes"). But the performance by Adele Exarchopoulos as Adele is undeniable—she goes places here I did not know it was possible to go, and everybody else is pretty well keeping up. Flawed, but definitely worth seeing.
Bonnie and Clyde (1967)—The most amazing part of this movie may be that it never looks old or feels stale, or hasn't yet. And it always finds a way to be devastating. This time the last conversation between Bonnie Parker (Faye Dunaway), Clyde Barrow (Warren Beatty), and Bonnie's mother (Mabel Cavitt) really hit me. Her mother's loathing is palpable. Plus Gene Wilder!
Captain Phillips (2013)—Largely empty and unsatisfying exercise that somehow manages to not have its cake and not eat it too. Tom Hanks is fine in the title role. It's a decent script. Director Paul Greengrass (United 93, the second and third Bourne movies) is efficient and plainly in his comfort zone. The problem is basically the usual mess around "based on true events" pictures, where the excesses are pinned on either "it's true!" or "it's fictionalized!," where everybody knows what's going to happen because they already know what did happen, kind of, and where the occasion is ripe for hagiography. Thus, by the numbers, our humanized captain of the boat, our not entirely humanized Middle Eastern terrorist pirates, and our brutally efficient military. It's not hard to pick out the cues for good guys and bad guys, but it's not always easy to understand them.
Charade (1963)—Maybe a little on the slight side but fun to see. Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn are pros as much as anything else, and they are ably supported by the likes of James Coburn, George Kennedy, and Walter Matthau, plus it's a pretty neat pseudo-Hitchcock story of intrigue and double-dealing with a Paris setting. Directed by Stanley Donen (Singin' in the Rain, The Pajama Game). Good date movie.

Directed by John Ford (2006)—I don't know what else to do about John Ford worship except look at it, and this love letter from Peter Bogdanovich is a fine place to go for that. I never saw the 1971 original, which aired on TV, but this restored version adds later interviews with Maureen O'Hara, Clint Eastwood, and others, reediting original interviews with John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, Henry Fonda, and Ford himself, among others, plus there's voiceover narration by Orson Welles. Them's big names, pardner. The regard they all have for Ford (including Ford) is positively bracing, even more so a snippet of a conversation between Ford and Katharine Hepburn, recorded without their knowledge. I don't love Ford as much as any of these people—he sounds like a first-rate asshole, for one thing—but man, their appreciation is fierce.
Double Indemnity (1944)—Masterpiece.
The 40-Year-Old Virgin (2005)—As far as I've seen, the Apatow comedies always have a certain level of affable charm. Steve Carell's I'm-just-barely-fitting-in shtick works all right with the conceit here, and it's loose enough to sort of bear its own puppy-dog clownishness. But does it add up? Let me put it this way: I'm only a little sorry I took the time to look.
Goldfinger (1964)—I'm not much for James Bond, but yeah, this is good stuff. My first time seeing it front to back, I believe. I understand the Sean Connery mystique more now, and I like that it's surprisingly comical. Naming a major character Pussy Galore, and having everyone address her constantly by her first name, is the kind of stroke that alone would make this. Pussy's adorable squad of minions is another nice touch. Nothing is the least bit believable but that's not the appeal of Bond anyway, right? Right?
Klute (1971)—It's hard to make a thriller work when there's virtually no chemistry between the principals, and even harder when you also have something incoherent to say about the sexual revolution. Nonetheless it's fun to see an unbearably smug Jane Fonda up against Donald Sutherland, mixing it up in the prime of their delicious youths. Great look and feel all around, e.g., the cars, the grain of the film stock, the music.
Looney Tunes—"Booby Hatched" (1944, in a whole disc devoted to director Frank Tashlin, mostly from the '30s), "The Case of the Stuttering Pig" (1937), "Cat-Tails for Two" (1953, I'm going to need a lot of help with Speedy Gonzalez, and the unpretty stereotypes, from the '50s, are not helping), "Cracked Ice" (1938), "Here Today, Gone Tamale" (1959), "I Got Plenty of Mutton" (1944), "Knighty Knight Bugs" (1958), "Little Beau Porky" (1936), "Little Pancho Vanilla" (1938), "Mexicali Shmoes" (1959), "Now That Summer Is Gone" (1938), "Plane Daffy" (1944), "Porky in the North Woods" (1936), "Porky's Poultry Plant" (1936), "Porky's Railroad" (1937), "Porky the Fireman" (1938), "Puss N' Booty" (1943), "Rabbit Romeo" (1957), "The Stupid Cupid" (1944), "Tabasco Road" (1957), "Tortilla Flaps" (1958), "West of the Pesos" (1960), "You're An Education" (1938)
Masculin Feminin (1966)—This one from director and writer Jean-Luc Godard came to me highly recommended by more than one person, and it does seem to me to be about the best I can hope for from a director I struggle with. I like the black and white, I like the way Chantal Goya injects a certain pristine European pop aesthetic into it so naturally, and Jean-Pierre Leaud is Jean-Pierre Leaud, icon and implicit argument always for the sanctity of cinema. I like the way it is so densely and willfully layered with competing sensations, the layers of explicit manipulation: image, language, printed words, music, motion, any of which can strike with blunt force. And I like the way it is organized like a thesis, with 15 more or less numbered parts. I have a feeling it only gets better too.
Midnight Cowboy (1969)—A pleasure to see this again. Dustin Hoffman's performance is as skilled as it is ostentatious, but it's Jon Voight's (and 1960s New York's) movie anyway, a tremendously effective story of how big city modern values wear you down, eat you up, and digest you, a fine companion piece with Rosemary's Baby and Taxi Driver. The transformation of Joe Buck is an unholy sight to behold, beginning to end. In some scenes Voight plays it purely with his nervous eyes. I might complain a little of director John Schlesinger's gauzy swirling allusive approach, but no, I think it works well against the concrete realities it depicts. Count me among those who think it's the existential brutality, not the sex, that ultimately earned Midnight Cowboy its original X rating.
My Little Chickadee (1940)—All you need to know is W.C. Fields and Mae West, in pretty good form. From one of the weirdest and most wonderfully mismatched boxes I've seen, with Charade, Double Indemnity, and Pillow Talk (above and below).
Naked (1993)—Have been enamored of Mike Leigh pictures recently but I forgot how harsh this is. Opens on a rape and proceeds from there. Nobody to like, nothing to care for. Recommended, but with caution. I much prefer, for example, Happy-Go-Lucky and Another Year, and would say go to one or both of them first.
O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)—A lot of retail mythologizing of 1930s American South going on here: chain gangs, Robert Johnson, Babyface Nelson, radio shows and advertisements, etc. Does it add up? Thankfully no, although that also means it veers a bit between charming and annoying. I would imagine good as the backend of a double feature with Sullivan's Travels. And/or read the Homer. Though I have done neither.
On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969)—I remember this as my favorite of the James Bonds I knew from my adolescence, mostly because of the skiing scenes. Not so much this time. Long (142 minutes), bloated, and tiresome.
Partner (1968)—I remain intrigued with the fascination in certain European circles for stories of doppelgangers, but I never connected with this third or so feature film from director Bernardo Bertolucci, which allegedly updates the Dostoevsky novel The Double to Italy and the anti-Vietnam '60s. I don't know the novel, but this film seemed to me more rudderless than otherwise, though Pierre Clementi's performance as a couple of lookalikes was impressive in moments.
Pet Shop Boys: A Life in Pop (2006)—A real pleasure to catch up with this. Although it's now going on eight years old and they have not really slowed yet, it effectively makes a case for the body of work at large that Chris Lowe and Neil Tennant have put together, clarifies a good many points about the enigmatic Lowe and what the Pet Shop Boys is and is not, and lets the music play for a glorious two and a half hours, covering everything up to approximately Fundamental. I have mostly steered clear of the videos, because I mostly steer clear of videos, so it was interesting to see and find out more about that side, and how it even affected their career (as with the "homoerotic" "Domino Dancing"). And I am dying to see Battleship Potemkin now with their soundtrack. Recommended.
Pillow Talk (1959)—Iconic. A favorite of mine I would hunt down on TV as a kid (among other things I was a fan of wholesome Doris Day). A classic story of the sexual revolution. "A dirty movie told clean," as someone said. Endlessly diverting still, more so in some ways, as in a now famous scene with Rock Hudson, in which, for perspective, a gay man is playing a straight actor who is playing a straight man who is pretending to be gay, by asking for recipes and such. All those great phone conversations in Mean Girls can trace their roots right back here. For fuck's sake see it.
Il Posto (1961)—A very quiet, very nice story of youth and early days catching on in a corporation with "a good job" and long-term security prospects. The message: What's Italian for "should auld acquaintance be forgot"?
The Searchers (1956)—I think among other things this might be the best use director John Ford ever made of Monument Valley, because the passes and detours and features were integrated so well into the story, as when Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) detours from the other two at one point and later reappears without his greatcoat, and only later do we find out an important plot point occurred there. The flaws are more rankling than ever—most (not all) of the hee haw moments—but there's a lot of good stuff too. A redemptive hee haw moment, for example: [sung slow] "Gone again, skip to my Lou / Gone again, skip to my Lou / Gone again, skip to my Lou / Skip to my Lou, my darling."
Seconds (1966)—Still trying a little bit to figure out what I saw here. Occasionally murky (not to say incoherent), once the outlandish science fiction premise settles into harness it goes to unexpected, weird, dark, and often disturbing places. Director John Frankenheimer's sense of bombast from early TV dramatic productions serves him well. Nothing about this should work (starting with Rock Hudson) but I came away from it with a sense of dread that did not leave me for the rest of that day.
She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949)—Episodic, with a weak narrative frame. But seeing it a second time in one year those points almost started to seem like strengths, enabling the picture to open up against the amazing landscape of Monument Valley shot in color. That director John Ford and crew were more or less lucky enough to catch an electrical storm while they were shooting, and took full advantage of it, is plainly the reason to see this picture. But it's also an interesting cast of characters mixing it up too. John Wayne, again, shows a capacity to be tremendously affecting.
The Simpsons (s6, 1994-1995)—In full command and reliably very funny—sometimes, all by myself, I am laughing very hard, rewinding to catch the timing again or do the freeze frames thing, etc. It's showing more range too, with more musical numbers than I remember from before, and one episode ("'Round Springfield") that almost made me cry, with Lisa (Yeardley Smith singing it too, sounds like) effectively covering Carole King's "Jazzman." The relationship between Homer and Bart (or between Homer and Ned Flanders) is just absurdly sick—I like that the show never strays far from brute cartoon force in many small but significant ways (e.g., the Itchy & Scratchy cartoons that frequently show up). Minor characters are steadily being rounded out. Really, it's all just remarkable at this point.
Splendor in the Grass (1961)—It's interesting how many big hothouse American productions of the late '50s and early '60s were focused on crack-ups of various kinds, usually headed up by Method acolytes such as James Dean, Marlon Brando, and Paul Newman. Here Natalie Wood, only about 22 but already ubiquitous from years as a child performer, gets the nervous breakdown honors and she does all right, though it's not really in her range. If Pillow Talk (above) is a comedy of the sexual revolution I guess this must be one of its tragedies. The mental institution was my clue. By which I mean no, I never quite connected with it. Warren Beatty, however, is just great in his first performance. Directed by Elia Kazan and written by William Inge (Bus Stop, Picnic).
Superbad (2007)—Some funny turns here, notably Jonah Hill, but overall feels more like an unexceptional pro forma teen comedy than a self-aware unexceptional pro forma teen comedy, which I believe they want us to believe it is. But I don't.
There Was a Father (1942)—It's possible that the circumstances of seeing this colored my experience: alone in a strange city, winter solstice Sunday evening, scratchy print, and a cathedral of cinema feeling to the venue. This is a real beauty and already one of my favorites by director and co-writer Yasujiro Ozu, with Tokyo Story and Late Spring. Ozu perennial Chishu Ryu plays a widowed father and former high school teacher attempting to do the right thing by his son. It is a tremendously complicated and beautiful relationship, propelled by profoundly realized beats of years passing, redeemed constantly by the affection between them. Essential.

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