21. Lasse Hallstrom directed Safe Haven from a bestseller by Nicholas Sparks, and apparently he’s done a previous Sparks movie that I’ve managed to miss. This depends on the straightforward, Lifetime-ready presentation of a story that travels in a seemingly inevitable direction and yet also pulls off an effective surprise—given that half of any surprise is not knowing there’s a surprise.
We’re presented with a woman running away from a murder or something, and she gets off the bus in a lovely little Carolina coastal town where she’s romanced by a studly widower with kids—a scene straight off the cover of a million romance paperbacks. The suspense is the cross-cutting with the cop who’s tracking her down. On one hand, the movie seems like nothing special, but you can’t overlook a well-told story.
22. Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby doesn’t pile on the visuals as much as you’d think, although it’s consistently beautiful. It reserves the overkill, appropriately, for Gatsby’s West Egg orgies with anachronistic orchestrations and assorted soundtrackery. Its big invention is to couch Nick Carraway’s flashing back and writing the novel into the context of seeking therapy at an asylum, and the movie seems to play with the undercurrent of Nick being in unstated love with Gatsby, although this isn’t pushed.
What’s most curious about the movie’s additions (Tom talking to Wilson about the accident, the suspense about the phone call at the pool) and omissions (the funeral and Gatsby’s father) is that they’re largely the same as the 1949 Alad Ladd version. Leonardo DiCaprio even seems to channel Ladd a bit. I seem to recall that this movie, like the lost silent version, was also partly based on Owen Davis’ Broadway adaption, which makes me wonder how much of these touches hail from that.
23. Oz the Great and Powerful does pile on the visuals, as we hope from Sam Raimi, though the most interesting part is the opening non-widescreen sepia reel. James Franco is less interesting as the hocus-pocus man than he was in Spring Breakers, and I don’t know why. He’s handsome in a contemporary way, but it wouldn’t seem that his flourishes should convince anyone. Maybe that’s the point.
I guess I’m saying he doesn’t have the barnstorming flim-flam character we associate with Ralph Morgan or any number of character actors. True to L. Frank Baum, this Oz is a thorough matriarchy full of strong women and deformed or artificial men, even though it ends up restoring a monarchy with a handsome fellow who gets the (good) witch.
24. Another expensive fairy tale full of effects is Bryan Singer’s Jack the Giant Slayer. The many action and effects sequences are well conceived and full of the kind of surprising narrative interest that the scenes of characterization lack, for the script relies on casting in that department—Ian McShane as King, Stanley Tucci as scoundrel, Ewan McGregor as bold knight, Bill Nighy as giant. Our young hero and heroine are bland. Although the princess is supposed be spunky and contemporary, there’s no avoiding that her entire function is to be constantly in need of rescue.
25. Quartet is Dustin Hoffman’s movie about a retirement home for classical music artistes, and what feathers are ruffled when Maggie Smith swans in doing Maggie Smith amid the other golden oldies. The trailer sells it mightily as “cute old people”, though Hoffman’s interest is more in an almost Altman-esque naturalism of people talking at the same time and indulging in various behaviors (though he doesn’t push it that far). It’s a movie about rapprochement, including with age and mortality, and the continuing inspiration and elevation of the arts in a person’s life. A minor pleasure, and we’ll take pleasure where we find it.
26. Lovely Molly, from Eduardo Sanchez of Blair Witch fame, opens with its tearful heroine addressing a vidcam in homage to that movie, and much of what follows is more video footage, and what’s not video footage is still presented in the same handheld style. It’s a contemporary take on Roman Polanski’s Repulsion, with the heroine’s psychotic breakdown as a residue from living in her old house where her father did nasty things to her, and now she’s apparently possessed or haunted by his spirit.
You can read it clinically, but the movie does tilt towards the uncanny with a very spooky ending that drags in some kind of demon horse. It’s kind of a downwardly spiraling chore to sit through.
27. We know that most movies are a third or fourth longer than necessary, and in the case of Jack Reacher, we can trace the bloat. All the action scenes, the movie’s true purpose, are well done: grim in tone, brutal in kinetic clarity. The dialogue is almost entirely expository and misplaced, laboriously explaining the story repeatedly and v-e-r-y s-l-o-w-l-y as though to a child or a blonde attorney whose function is to be sexy and flustered. In order to keep goosing the viewer with mayhem, we follow the parallel plots of the bad guys, so that we always know more than our hero and well in advance.
For a big example, we know from the start that the patsy accused of being a sniper is innocent, but it takes Jack and the Lawyer Lady more than an hour to work that out. This makes them look dumb, and indeed the attorney is written stupid. Choosing to reveal the guilty behavior of all guilty parties, except for withholding one as a “surprise”, is manipulation so transparent as to qualify as creative bankruptcy, but this is after all a very basic plot.
In order to tell a tight and fairly sensible and edgy story, it should follow Jack’s POV exclusively, thus making a trim 90 minutes (instead of 2 hours) but losing many of the sadistic thrills. Robert Duvall nails his cameo, of course, and Werner Herzog collects a paycheck for lending gravitas to his bad guy, while Richard Jenkins is wasted.
28. Now Trance is a script that doesn’t let you down. This Danny Boyle joint adopts that common trope of Millennial Unreality—the hero with amnesia—and plonks him into an ingenious, re-watchably unwinding twistathon while foregrounding a sense of humor about its characters and their situation. This original heist movie spends half its time undergoing experiments in hypnotherapy in order to find out where our lad stashed the McGuffin (a Goya painting), and the audience never knows more than our baffled leads. You see, Jack Reacher folks, you see? Ah well, their picture probably made more money.
29. Stoker flips back and forth from the perspective of a teen girl, recently bereft of her father and gradually revealing a pathology of damage that makes her increasingly edgy and unpredictable, and her sinister uncle, who’s revealed right away as bad news, eliminating supporting characters without a by-your-leave.
So where else can the plot go, if it wishes to avoid tedium, but inward towards disturbing revelations that are at least different from the usual disturbing revelations about teen girls. South Korea’s Park Chan-Wook was imported to Hollywood for this sleek, dislocatingly edited slice of American Upper Class Gothic.
30. Kim Ki-Duk, almost certainly the cruelest Korean director, gives us Piéta, which begins as an extremely unpleasant look at the daily routines of an impassive debt collector who maims people for insurance money, then finds himself confronted by a leechlike woman who claims to be the mother who abandoned him at birth. His skeptical treatment of her leads to the most extreme scenes, and by then, if we’re still watching, we’re hooked by the morbid fascination of what could possibly happen next. And everything does.
31. Everything also happens (or rather not enough) in Would You Rather, which we can use to illustrated the pointlessness and tediousness of sadistic movies about killing their characters. A bunch of people are invited to a “game” whose winner will have all their problems solved financially, and this leads to the inevitable social experiment in torture. The problem is the crushing lack of imagination.
I kept coming up with twists and reversals that surely, surely the narrative was about to perform—but no, it couldn’t allow itself to stray beyond a narrow range of choices that require characters to have no sense of ingenuity or self-preservation. The reason is simple: you can’t let the story end too early, and that’s all.
Piéta and Stoker are at least equally cruel, but their games with audience expectations are insidious and nerve-wracking in a way this by-the-numbers exercise cannot be. While watching, I fancied that I could write the greatest, most surprising torture-porn script, a deconstruction akin to Joss Whedon’s The Cabin in the Woods, and also that if I had the resources to make a movie, I wouldn’t waste them on such a thing. And if I wouldn’t think the greatest example of this genre worth making, what does that say of the others?
32 & 33. Oh those wacky Danes. Two projects from Lars Von Trier’s Zentropa Productions are The Ambassador and Klown the Movie. The former is a hidden-camera documentary by a skinny bald white Danish journalist masquerading as a wheeler-dealer businessman and putative diamond smuggler who exposes the traffic in phony ambassadorships to cash-strapped countries in Africa, such as Liberia and the apparent free-for-all known as the Central African Republic, where most of the film takes place while he’s trying to build a match factory and score some diamonds.
The latter film is based on a popular Danish sitcom about two buddies, their girlfriends, and their Seinfeldian descents into raunchy, obscene humiliations. The sample episode included as a bonus (about a women’s masturbation circle) seems to be shot in the Dogme 95 style. The film throws in perky music from Bent Fabric, best known for the hit “The Alley Cat”. In fact, Fabric plays “himself” in the film, lording it over a private brothel. Half of the jokes involve Danish celebrities as “themselves”, a point lost on the non-Dane viewer.
The story, about the guys’ weekend camping and “pussy trip” while one of them tries to show his nephew a good time, contains one early scene I found so funny, I had to temporarily shut the movie off. Later events are outrageous in a more predictable way that diverts the viewer with the mere thought that they’re actually going through with these scenarios about clueless hapless man-boys committing offensive atrocities.
34. As for showing growing boys a good time, there’s Jeff Nichols’ Mud, with Matthew McConaughey as the title character, a shady fellow conjured from the swampy wishes of two boys who desire adventure. Like Long John Silver or Prospero or perhaps Venus on the half-shell, he appears full-blown on an island in the Mississippi, a lovingly photographed locale of natural beauty amid the mundane shallow clapboard lives of everyone they know.
Perhaps he’s a will o’ the wisp, but he charms them into believing his stories about how he’s running away to meet his sweetie (Reese Witherspoon). Sam Shepard plays the taciturn ex-military houseboat neighbor who, in another movie, would be played by Robert Duvall. The local-boy actors have natural presence and fascinating accents.
35. The Incredible Burt Wonderstone is a comedy that indulges in the standard bouts of bad taste and predictable romance for its hero (jaded Vegas illusionist Steve Carell) in need of redemption with a fabulous babe, but I found the accoutrements of its low-key, character-based story sufficiently offbeat and absorbing to keep me going.
I like the tattiness of the Vegas milieu, the credible slide from headliner to humiliated performer at rest homes and kids’ parties, and the nuttiness of the final illusion. Steve Buscemi is the estranged partner in their “magical friendship” and Alan Arkin is the standard sour mentor. Jim Carrey is almost irrelevant as the upstart stunt-magician we need to hate, since the real conflict is within Burt.
36. An American academic goes to Rumania to track down info about the Jewish pre-war family of his late father (deceased gangster) and his great writer uncle in The Phantom Father. It’s a pleasant, shaggy, feel-good anecdote about hooking up with a frustrated local woman. Scenes are playfully shuffled, and there’s a meta-cinematic element provided by a family friend and film theatre owner who shows this movie among his other movies.
The climax doesn’t take seriously the story’s allusions to gangster movies, just as the early dream sequence is a spoof of vampire movies with enormous naked women, and I’d kind of rather have seen that movie. The hero is a tall, grey-haired, handsome guy who tilts his head and smiles ingratiatingly. Based on a story by Barry Gifford, who has a cameo showing some discomfort as an actor.
37. The Sapphires is an ordinary and highly predictable nostalgic musical biopic with an original setting, or rather Aboriginal: four Australian girls from a reservation (including one who has passed for white) take their Motown/Atlantic cover act on a tour of Vietnam during the war. Racial angst is downplayed in favor of getting on with the job, but it’s an understood context that gives an edge even to the glib interpersonal conflicts and camaraderies.
The top-billed star is the white guy who’s their down-at-heels manager, and for whom they offer redemption. Good performances, slick production. An interesting, too-brief extra interviews the living women who inspired this movie, based on a play by the son of one of them.
38. The problem with The Company You Keep is that any potential suspense is fractured by a narrative that’s split between the Albany lawyer (director Robert Redford), who’s revealed to be a wanted fugitive from the Weather Underground, and the good brash journalist (Shia La Twink) tracking him down, as well as minor roles designed to offer meat for the many big-name stars. Now, I agree that any excuse to expand Julie Christie’s screen time should be grabbed, but only Susan Sarandon’s scene is truly electric.
After the big build-up, the final confrontation between Redford and Christie (who out-acts him) is a damp, cramped and predictable trading of homilies edited with a bunch of other stuff, as is the whole convenient resolution. I recall Roger Ebert’s frequent complaint about movies with journalists quashing the story of their career because it’s somehow “the right thing to do.”
In this case, that’s especially absurd. While we’re at it, even with the timeline pushed forward ten years later than it really should be, Brit Marling looks too young to be a certain character’s daughter, although the actress is 30. So maybe the story wouldn’t have held up.
39. The final true Merchant Ivory film, The City of Your Final Destination, is absorbing and pretty. While scripted by the eternal Ruth Prawer Jhabvala from a novel by Peter Cameron, it feels like a very personal final project for James Ivory. Anthony Hopkins plays an aging aesthete, aware he can’t last much longer, living with an Asian lover (Japanese actually).
The story is cozy, with a hapless Persian academic dropping in on the Uruguyan estate of a famous dead novelist where his widow (prickly Laura Linney, listening to Poulenc) and mistress (squinting Charlotte Gainsbourg) remain trapped by poverty. The story goes pretty much where you’d think, but as they say, the destination isn’t as important as how you get there, and this will please those who go truffling for High Culture movies. I like a few with my tea.
40. Portuguese centenarian Manoel de Oliveira’s The Strange Case of Angelica is a spellbinding ghost story cum allegory in which the High Culture aspects are more than set decoration. This is a true example of the thing itself. The long, beautiful scenes, usually shot from a stationary camera, use crystalline deep focus over multiple planes to give an almost 3D effect, with ravishing attention to light.
In this highly personal and elegiac work of meditative whimsy, the director’s grandson plays a Jewish photographer who feels isolated from his highly Catholic town and from the modern world in general. He’s in love with things that disappear, which he attempts to preserve with a camera. (By the way, Oliveira is Catholic, but at one time he wondered if he might be Jewish, according to the very good critical commentary track.)
A secret miracle happens when our hero’s called to a wealthy home to shoot a memorial photo of a beautiful dead girl, and this smiling corpse represents the promise of Art and its attempt to freeze time for the lovestruck young man—doomed to love a woman who’d almost certainly be unobtainable even if she weren’t dead. As the commentary points out, the young man wants to be Lumière but his dreams are pure Méliès (well, maybe I’m the one who puts it exactly like that).
A bonus is Oliveira’s first film, a silent city-documentary short from 1931 set in the same town and employing Soviet montage to focus on a little drama among dock workers. He later pretty much eschewed montage for long takes. This DVD is from Cinema Guild, which I’m just about ready to name the best indie DVD label in the USA.