50 Nights at the Movies -- at Home!

by Michael Barrett

13 August 2013

Draw the Curtains, Put Up Your Feet

26. Returning emphatically to the hetero male, I enjoyed Woody’s To Rome With Love more than I’d have guessed from the lukewarm notices from critics who wanted it to be Midnight in Paris. This has very interesting aspects. One is that the four stories are completely unrelated and the cutting between them is purely for the purpose of advancing them, so that in fact there’s no correlation between time passing in one story or another. Most obviously, the one with Penelope Cruz takes place all in one day, but it’s interwoven with stories that take days and even weeks! That’s a radical approach to cross-cutting, yet a valid one. This potential disorientation also serves the point that the stories are all quietly fantastical, or at least frankly non-realist. One story never explains the relationship between Alec Baldwin and Jesse Eisenberg; is Baldwin flashing back to his own youth, or only imagining the whole scenario?

Cruz plays, guess what, a hooker. Before we express sarcastic astonishment that Woody would write such a role for a woman, we should recall that this movie is also trying to evoke traditions of Italian cinema (including the presence of Roberto Benigni, for example), and that the harlot is a well-established figure in the cinema of that madonna/whore country. What’s more interesting and genuinely subversive in terms of middle-class cinema (some will say self-serving) is that in three out of four tales, Woody underlines the message that infidelity not only isn’t so terrible, it may even be beneficial. Put that in your mainstream values!

Benigni’s plot (which reminded me of the anecdotes of Dino Buzzatti) explores Warhol’s twin dicta that everyone will be famous for 15 minutes and that you can be famous for being famous, and it’s also subversive in that instead of ending at the predicted happiness of going back to your own safe life, the man feels a genuine sense of loss as it’s explained to him that being a celebrity is better. (Is this an evolution from Stardust Memories and the execrated Celebrity?) Again, we sense Woody is writing from experience and authority. Those aren’t the lies people pay to hear in movies! He’s getting away with them in a light shiny sugar-coated comedy.

27. My mom’s verdict on Skyfall is that she liked everything about it except the loudness and violence, a statement requiring no comment I can offer. What I liked about it is multifold. Granting that its setpieces depend on the modern action film’s three C’s (convenience, coincidence and contrivance), they’re excellent. We could go through every one and point out how the C’s are observed in order to prolong the action instead of cut it short, beginning with the colossal and sensibly unexplained McGuffin of why you’d have every undercover spy on a “hard drive” in the hands of some agent in Istanbul (esp. since it seems to be the case that the bad guy is a master hacker who has access to all their files already), or how a chase need only be instigated by someone pulling up in a truck and declaring “He’s in the black Audi” that’s magically 20 feet ahead. Or how the bad guy and his bad squad can turn up in a meeting for the purpose of shooting one old lady right in front of him and end up shooting everyone else instead in a prolonged bout, and then not get shot when Bond has him in his sights climbing a ladder because they stop for a chat, and don’t even mention the henchmen who never learn that standing two inches from Bond is a bad idea when you might shoot him safely from yards away.

Never mind all that. Director Sam Mendes seems to have heard the carping of people like me about over-editing action instead of presenting it (though I’ve been observing how the last few years have evolved action staging in depth to accomodate 3D), and he takes it to the near avant-garde extreme of staging almost an entire fight in a single arty shot with silhouettes (the better to use doubles, I suppose) and closing on a breathless dolly-forward in the sequence I call Blade Runner kabuki (I know kabuki is Japanese and the scene is in Shanghai, but I can’t help that). Look at all the frames in that sequence of mirrors and glass and space: the window across the way, the woman mimicking Modigliani’s painting, boxes within boxes. Remarkable.

By the way, Bond has already been ordered to “terminate” this guy after getting info, and he says “With pleasure,” and that adds an interesting moral culpability to the scene where Bond is holding onto him. We know that he’s only “saving” him to get the info, and that if he gets it, he’d let him drop, so the fact that the guy drops accidentally without coughing up any facts is mere happenstance. Is this perhaps to prevent Bond from having to kill in cold blood instead of defensively? But that could have been avoided by dropping the dialogue about termination, so they wanted us to go into the scene remembering that. And Bond allows the Modigliani hit to occur instead of stepping in to prevent it. Interesting. The movie is about cruelty and “collateral damage” throughout, ranging from M’s decisions to the poor femme fatale (or rather fatale femme).

And I’ve skipped over the greatest avant-garde credits sequence in the series, presented as Bond’s dying dream! Nor have I mentioned the glorious shot that introduces the sexually threatening Javier Bardem delivering a great soliloquy as he walks from far background to closeup and begins his languid hands-on approach. His pauses and glances are priceless, most outrageously after his “eat each other” line. He’s possibly the most interesting and magnetic villain in the series, certainly the most volatile and trickster-ish, and the most challenging politically and strategically.

I trust you’ve seen this movie? If not, big fat SPOILER ahead as I discuss the seeming subversion of the ending, for isn’t it the case that the bad guy wins? He has one goal: to kill M, and he succeeds. At the very end, he puts the gun in her hands and begs her to put them both out of their misery, so he apparently wants to die with her. Even there, he succeeds after Bond gives him the penetration he so desired. True, he dies without realizing that M is also dying, but so what? Didn’t he achieve his aim? As for revealing the agents’ identities, that’s never addressed again; did he automatically upload these revelations to pop onto YouTube at the rate of once a week, and will this continue without him? The movie never says!

28. I liked Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, scripted by Tony Kushner, actually because it’s so schematic. The characters carefully explain what each scene is about, almost as though they are figures in a diorama lit by Rembrandt (“I’m Mrs. Lincoln and I’m hysterical and wet”) and how it all adds up to a textbook illustration in manufacturing sausages, with its requisite notes being struck from the very first scene of the black corporal confronting Lincoln respectfully while his older friend tries to be more ingratiating in his ingrained manner (disturbed by the other’s “uppity-ness”), and Lincoln acknowledges him without answering, or rather deflecting. I also like the shocking opening battle sequence of black soldiers against white in vicious intimate savagery—a rare, disturbing, yet in its way salutary and pithy image. I like the elegance of speeches and compositions. Great final reveal for Tommy Lee Jones, who turns out to be the only one in the picture getting any nookie.

29. They only have sex within wedlock in Twilight: Breaking Dawn Part 2, a remarkably satisfying ending to the saga. As with Part 1, really nothing happens for a long honeymoon of respite. The climactic donnybrook has as much carnage as you’d hope, and then it does something extraordinary that I really didn’t see coming but that makes radical sense. The whole series has been at least moderately interesting for its tone and look and unabashed romantic nonsense, and this two-part finale really delivers. If you think I’m crazy, deal with it.

30. Zero Dark Thirty opens and closes with routinely presented horrors accepted—nay, committed—by its professional characters, and the actual moment of shooting Bin Laden is interestingly handled not as a cathartic highlight but as a confused did-we-miss-it scene that almost deprives the audience of what it’s been waiting for. (Now, if this were a Jason Statham picture!) In between is our lovely CIA heroine, speaking more profanely and less professionally to her superiors than Clarice Starling, in a kind of Hawksian he-man milieu touched by hysteria (see also Homeland, where everyone in the CIA swears at each other). Kathryn Bigelow is sure at home while awash in testosterone, though the sparse “action” scenes are telegraphed with detailed set-ups. This feels like mythologizing and deconstructing at the same time. Its unpleasant and strangely dampened nature, and its look at a broader process of the environment around its heroine, is what probably makes this movie more problematic and less “satisfying” than The Hurt Locker, which isn’t a bad thing.

31. Seven Psychopaths tries to deconstruct the psycho/hitman/gangster movie with a postmodern premise of the screenwriter trying to write about the psychopaths, so there’s lots of frantically hip dialogue punctuated by ultra-violence and breakneck twists amid the star-studded cast—Christopher Walken, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, Tom Waits, cameos by Harry Dean Stanton and, wait, Gabourey Sidibe from Precious?! If you know it’s from the same guy who did In Bruges, then it seems a bit of a sophomore slump as he tries to step sideways from the Old World strangeness of Bruges to the New World desert strangeness of Hollywood. If you don’t know, then it can be seen as the pleasant faux-Tarantino throwaway it is. Hip soundtrack.

32. Of course Walken is more or less “doing” Christopher Walken in that one, and that gives us context to enjoy his emphatically not doing himself in A Late Quartet. The mere fact of his playing not a psycho but a cello is enough to attract our admiration, but the highlight of his quiet character is the breathtaking scene of the cameo by Anne-Sofie von Otter as his late wife, appropriately singing an aria from Korngold’s Die Tote Stadt or The Dead City.

This is a High Culture movie, as specifically tailored to its crowd as movies about explosions and gunfire are to theirs. You get: New Yorkers looking at Rembrandts in museums, pertinent quotes from T.S. Eliot spelling out the theme (how do you handle going out of tune and coming back to harmony), a cameo from Wallace Shawn, an anedcote about Pablo Casals that takes a poke at critics (just enjoy what gives you pleasure and leave the rest aside), lots of musical snippets. The plot is supposedly structured like the Beethoven quartet 131, in seven flowing and mercurial movements. To this end, the stuff about troubled marriage and egos and parenting issues and anal personality disorders is really as programmatic as, say, The Avengers, so you pays your money and takes your choice. Not to be confused with Dustin Hoffman’s Quartet that came out in the same five minutes, nor with the much older Basileus Quartet.

33. The Israeli Footnote is about the relationship between an angry, imploded father who hasn’t been recognized for throwing his life away on Talmudic scholarship (he’s proud of having been once mentioned in a footnote), and his son, well-liked and recognized in the same field. The dad naturally fumes and disdains the son’s success. The hook: the son wins a prestigious honor, but they mistakenly inform the father instead, and when this is explained to the son, his decision drives the rest of this dry comedy of ego and disappointment. It opens with lots of playful visual elements involving slide projectors and split-screen and titles and flashbacks before settling into its groove of scenes alternating intensely expressed emotions with intensely seething restraint.

The first scene is a bit of exposition that would never be in a Hollywood movie. We simply stare at the minimal sour facial reactions of the father, unbroken for minutes, as he listens to his son accepting an award with an anecdote about his childhood. This actor, described by the director as an Israeli Peter Sellers (this would be his Being There), has very little dialogue. The highlight is a wonderfully charged scene of many people crammed into a tiny office for a top secret meeting. The ending of the ceremony itself has nicely surreal design and disorientation.

34. Be With Me for a long time seems to have no plot, or only a mysterious one, that skips between moments among various characters: two schoolmates having a girl/girl idyll (often via texting) until one finds a boyfriend, a lonely fat guard who stalks a chic female exec, and most interesting, the personally narrated memoirs of a real deaf-blind woman (who cannot see or hear the movie she’s in!) who eventually meets a grieving widower who cooks food for her. Here’s an example where the fragmentary nature of the scenes (though not hyper, like attention deficit disorder) works well to intrigue and bathe the viewer in a pleasant confusion, though each individual scene is well-defined in its situation.

35. Beautiful Creatures is an entertaining cross of Harry Potter and Twilight via Bewitched. Or maybe it’s True Blood meets Dark Shadows. Anyway, everything old is high concept again. A South Carolina high school boy with a taste for banned books feels drawn to the girl from a mysterious wacky wealthy family. It’s true love because they dreamed of each other, and he quickly finds out there’s a whole passle of backstory (and plenty implied for future outings, since this is a book series) about her decadent “caster” (witch) family. The effects are engagingly conceived and visualised, and the script emphasizes the characters’ soap opera. Narrow-minded religious fundamentalism is a bugaboo, although the irony is that those who accuse the family of dark powers have a point!

36. Burning Man doesn’t refer to hippies in the desert, but to an Aussie film told in fragmentary shards skipping around through time, beginning with the hero’s car accident landing him in the hospital and then elliptically skipping back to eventually reveal the details of his life as a husband and father who lost his wife to cancer and going through stages of grief, which all seem to be anger and denial. I have said that avant-garde techniques work best with simple story material and vice-versa, and if this story had been told in a straightforward manner, it would have been too dull and TV-movie-ish, until it eventually finds peace with an image of dad and son holding hands (like Bicycle Thieves) and staring into the camera while the soundtrack closes with John Lennon’s “Instant Karma” to wrap it all up. I did lots of fast-forwarding to get to the point, since individual moments didn’t interest me, though at least there was plenty of sex.

37. Now compare with the utterly straightforward, even slow presentation of the problem-of-the-week in the Japanese A Simple Life. Both films use in-your-face handheld docudrama style, but while the former film is youthful and jittery in its attempt to disorient and dazzle us, this film simply documents with telling details the slow decline of a female family retainer who’s had a stroke and now decides to move into a depressing assisted-living tenement. She accepts it and adjusts, making a few friends. This is her life. The filmmaker bachelor she’s been taking care of as housekeeper (as she did his mother before him) comes to realize how much he values and owes her, but there are no magic happy solutions. No sappy affirming last-minute spry bucket lists, only loneliness lightened by a few moments of connection, pain with a few discreet attempts at dignity within a context of crushing indignity. I cried.

38. Children Who Chase Lost Voices is a lyrical, imaginative otherworldly journey for a little fatherless girl, a grieving widower/teacher, and a boy who lives in that decaying land and lost his brother when the latter decided to visit the surface world. As is typically the case with Japanese anime, the characters are multi-faceted combinations of understandable motives and serious flaws at odds with each other. This becomes quite strong and beautiful toward the end, comparing favorably with Miyazaki. It’s a “children’s film” informed by the presence of death, and again it’s about stages of acceptance.

39. This Is Not a Film is a video made by brilliant Iranian Jafar Panahi while appealing his jail sentence and ban against making films. It’s a personal statement, made in his home, with a few clips from his movies and conversations about his case on the phone and interactions with a few people on the day of a fireworks holiday. He never goes outside but at the end we look through the door at the celebration in the street, which the authorities are trying to subdue for fear of demonstrations. It was smuggled out of the country. A gutsy reminder that there are places where artists are feared and suffer for it (as for example with the above-named Ai Weiwei).

40. Color me impressed by everything about The Hunger Games, especially its restraint. Gary Ross directs the opening alternate-world-Appalachian segment (shot in North Carolina) in handheld quavery docu-style, all in gloomy greys except for opened-out lush forest segments. It takes more than hour to get to the games themselves, but that time builds up the queasy dread without lots of CGI sets (almost as though working with an old Logan’s Run budget), and then the games are very suspenseful yet also restrained.

There’s something engaging and direct about its morality and politics. The disc also has intelligent making-of’s, pointing out that writer Suzanne Collins created the trilogy in the middle of the Bush era. The idea has been around before in various movies but they say she got the idea when flipping back and forth between war coverage and reality TV and realizing they were the same; that would do it. Had I seen when it came out, it would have been on my best of year list. It just shows to go ya.

41. And one of last year’s best is The Sessions, a winning and funny “feel-good” movie about a poet and journalist in an iron lung who wants to lose his virginity with a sex therapist. Excellent dialogue, pace, and performances by John Hawkes and Helen Hunt. Everything works.

42. There’s hip humor and martial mayhem in Hansel & Gretel Witch Hunters, which is where Oscar winners like Jeremy Renner go to make money (see also his Bourne movie). It’s silly and unpretentiously engaging with its 19th Century steampunk accoutrements and lithe motions.

43. It sure provides more pleasure than The Dark Knight Rises. If we consider Christopher Nolan’s Batman as a trilogy, then I don’t know if it’s the best of three, but it’s possibly the least sensible, and that’s saying something. The scenes with Selina Kyle (never called Catwoman) perk the movie up because her confident and agile presence is the best thing here. The plot has something to do with creating an instant duplicitous co-opted Occupy revolution, evoking France’s “Reign of Terror”, for the purpose of blowing everything up thanks to what’s delivered as a surprising revelation of villainy unless you were paying attention, but anyway Batman is blindsided (which doesn’t say much for his deductive powers). Please note that the endless half hour where he builds up to finally making the leap across a ledge is cheated through editing so that we don’t actually see what the story’s been building up to.

44. Ah, the quiet pleasures of Robot & Frank, when dementia-prone ex-burglar Frank Langella gets a renewed interest in life through his clunky girl-in-suit robot butler. Like the Batman movie—and this is the only comparison I’ll make—it also pulls off a climactic surprise I’m not sure we can quite believe, since it means his memory is much worse than we thought on a certain matter.

45. I was left uncharmed by the scratchy hand-drawn computer animation (drawn electronically, then colored) illustrating Christopher Plummer reading aloud from J.R. Ackerley’s My Dog Tulip about the travails of his canine’s bodily functions. With so much excreting, urinating, and mating, no one can accuse it of not dealing with fundamental realities. Years ago I read Ackerley’s My Father and Myself, in which the British literary personage describes his history of liaisons with lower-class blokes and discovers his ex-guard father had a secret sex life too, and then Ackerley mentions how he finally found unquestioning love in a dog acquired from a lover. That acquisition is recounted more circumspectly here. My lack of interest probably has to do with my unsympathy for dogs, whose charms this movie does nothing to advertise. It’s a film that can make you think of going to the animal shelter, and don’t forget the arsenic.

46. Margin Call is fascinating: a tense dialogue-driven piece observing the Aristotelian unities, with chic characters spouting Chayevskian arias (especially a tightly wound Jeremy Irons as CEO) amid sleek glass and metal walls. It spells things out well enough for the stupid (all of us) while still leaving us with a throbbing sense of unease and impending doom. Now here’s a good use of canine characters: Kevin Spacey’s dog is introduced early and pays off when the (second) ending comments on the earlier ditch-digging remark and also functions as a literal as well as metaphorical piece of grave-digging. Kudos for being elegantly self-conscious and credible about it.

47. More unease suffuses Martha Marcy May Marlene. The title woman (I won’t explain) seeks refuge with her sister without explaining where she’s been, while her flashbacks (which she isn’t sure is real, since she’s having a breakdown) reveal indoctrination into a commune headed by charismatic John Hawkes (last seen crippled in The Sessions, now twisted in a different way). Enigmatic and chilling, if a bit drawn-out and in love with its lovely understated observational mode.

48. Speaking of being in love with your mode, The Hobbit parades one wonder after another before our eyes, and the reason it’s all so drawn-out that it takes almost three hours only to get through the first part of the story (this book isn’t a trilogy!) is, I suppose, that it creates a world people don’t want to leave too soon and don’t mind if it takes forever to get from point A to B—especially in a theatre with 3D glasses, or at IMAX, or at IMAX in 3D. The real purpose is to show off the scenery, even if the character interaction is sometimes overstated for childish purposes. I was glad, as usual, for the ability to pause.

It’s amazing that Gollum is the most convincing and scene-stealing character: repulsive and pathetic, utterly riveting. Gandalf keeps showing up at various nicks of time to prove it’s handy to have a wizard around, finally pulling off something so grand that you wonder why he didn’t just do that at the start of the journey and save a lot of shoe leather.

I’ve observed that action in 3D today prefers long takes to hyper-editing, and this is also something made possible by CGI, and a perfect demo is the endless exhausting chase through the underground goblin land along crumbling bridges, with every tiny character doing some carefully detailed thing in the flurry of the camera flying from one level to another as the band of heroes defies death second by second. Boy, the craftsmen and women are in love with their jobs and can’t let it go, so it just keeps on and on.

49. Shorter and sweeter is the equally detailed stop-motion constructions of ParaNorman, with its bullied kid (who sees dead people) saving the zombies from the crazed mob of townies and teaching everyone a valuable lesson to earn the approval of every idiot within miles.

50. The Amazing Spiderman feels needless as a “reboot” to Sam Raimi’s trilogy, yet I must admit I never cared for that trilogy. I must also prefer this mop-headed Twilight-ready Andrew Garfield cutie to uber-geek Tobey Maguire (something about his smirk turns me off), and I think the web-slinging scene at the climax is more majestic, or perhaps I just like its modern sense of “crowd sourcing” as strangers get together to arrange the city for Spidey’s benefit, so that he’s not a lonely vigilante so much as an expression of the culture at large, all with their five dollar contributions as it were.

However, I must roll my eyes at the convention of that sequence, which begins during the school day (in an instantly vacated school building) and has Spidey telling Gwen to get over to such and such a building to do so and so, and she says “I’m on my way”, and then one edit later, it’s suddenly night! Did it take all day for everyone to get where they’re going? What is this, one of those vampire pictures with five minutes of daylight? Another curious aspect of the film is that freakin’ everybody  knows Peter Parker’s secret identity! Right?! What’s up with that?

The remaining days of summer. The library. The TV. Life is good.

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