27 July 2011

Viewing Journal: Week of 25-31 Jul

LEST YOU BE CONFUSED: Films in /brackets/ I had previously seen. The ratings are on a 100-point scale that merely signifies my personal and highly subjective degree of enthusiasm, and I use the entire damn scale, e.g. 65 is equivalent to 6.5/10, a mild thumbs-up. Anything 70+ I really liked, and 80+ is generally top ten for any given non-phenomenal year.

/Videodrome/ (1983, David Cronenberg): 52

Tricky one. Intelligent, provocative, in many ways prescient...but I don't find it terribly satisfying, and I think that's because it's really just a bunch of half-digested ideas thrown together in an essentially meaningless narrative. (In that respect, it reminds me a bit of Egoyan's Adoration, though the two films have little else in common apart from being chilly and Canadian.) Television is alternately portrayed as seductive and immersive—"come to Nicki," purr Deborah Harry's giant lips, whereupon our hero enters the screen headfirst—or as a means of passively consuming images of pain and degradation; it's both hot and cool, as needed, and not in a way that seems coherently diametrical. And while the "new flesh" bit is obviously a longstanding Cronenbergian trope, it doesn't really coalesce (so to speak) with Videodrome-the-program(me) and our alleged appetite for truly senseless violence. ("It's just torture and murder. No plot, no characters. Very, very realistic. I think it's what's next.") Any given five or ten minutes of the movie look fantastic, but watched start to finish it plays like a compilation album of Cronenberg's Greatest Hits, even though some of those singles hadn't yet been recorded at the time. For my money, demonlover, while it has problems of its own, is a far more successful meditation on similar themes, perhaps because it employs a single controlling metaphor rather than lurching from one memorably repulsive setpiece to the next. Even classic moments require context.

/An American in Paris/ (1951, Vincente Minnelli): 58

Was curious to see whether my allergic reaction to Leslie Caron would still kick in, and indeed it did; how anybody could look twice at her when Nina Foch is practically swan-diving into his pants is beyond my comprehension. Even disregarding that bias, though, I'd put this firmly in the second or even third tier of classic Hollywood musicals. Book is a snooze enlivened solely by Foch and the occasional mordant joke from Levant (whose big "solo" stops the movie dead for no reason save to give him something to do), while several of the numbers are infected by M. Guétary, who's like the French version of Allan Jones. (MGM did love their vapid male "heartthrobs.") Only the climactic ballet really stands out, and even that's due more to the riot of color than to the choreography. Mostly of interest today as a reflection of post-war American mores, even if they differ from our own only by degree: Sexism is by no means dead, and men still generally don't like being financially dependent upon a woman, but I doubt a contemporary audience would work up the level of sheer disgust that this movie clearly expects the Jerry-Milo relationship to inspire, to the point where she gets cruelly ill-used by him and then, incredibly, just plain forgotten. The lovers clinch as the picture fades, and we're not to think of the lonely woman who had her hopes raised out of spite and then dashed. No movie featuring this much of Gene Kelly singing and tapping to the Gershwins could fail to be pleasant, but pleasant is pretty much where it tops out; I can only assume its Best Picture nod involved the same streak of Francophilia that has everyone so gaga about Woody Allen's latest.

Shut Up Little Man! An Audio Misadventure (2011, Matthew Bate): W/O

[Pedigree: Sundance '11 World Cinema Doc; ND/NF. Tribeca Films plans a late August release.]

Okay, I'm clearly missing something here. Reliable reports suggest that this film does eventually get around to wondering whether it's perhaps a tad grotesque to treat the incoherent ranting of two mentally disturbed individuals (I'm gonna go ahead and file alcoholism under Mental Disturbance, though I'm not convinced that's all we're hearing) as mass entertainment. But I'm frankly horrified that anyone feels like that's arguable enough to postpone. It's like I just watched 40 minutes of minor celebrities talking about how much they enjoy jerking off to secret footage of Josef Mengele's surgical experiments, in a movie that'll address the ethical implications later on. Why don't we stick a microphone in various asylums and record some paranoid schizophrenics? That'd be really fucked up! But come on. I'm not against hipsters. Cono—no, not even Conor Oberst. I am of course very much for hipsters. No, not too much because Williamsburg is a pain in the ass. Okay, I'm a prig.

/Revenge/ (1990, Tony Scott): 42

After a brief discussion with one of the friends who insisted this film isn't the pointless exercise in stylish brutality I dimly remembered, I think I see what the problem is (and can now retroactively explain why the original Postman Always Rings Twice got a meager 52). Torrid, obsessive affairs involving people who barely speak to each other put me to sleep. This is a longstanding argument I've had with another friend who's regularly attracted to gorgeous idiots, and who reliably notes that you do have not a deeply intellectual conversation with someone when you are fucking them. For me, however, sexual attraction is far more mental than physical (even though I do very much have a physical type), so the whole "the instant I saw her I knew that I must possess her...completely, irrevocably, adverbially" thing leaves me utterly cold. As a result, I'm kinda rooting for Anthony Quinn in this picture, though it doesn't help that Costner is so bizarrely whitebread (even given the milieu)—he'd demonstrate that he can do ruthless a few years later in A Perfect World, so I can only assume he was overly concerned with his image at the time. (I watched the "director's cut," which reportedly elides a lot of dialogue suggesting that Ray feels guilty about what he's doing, all of which was—again reportedly—included in the theatrical version at Costner's insistence.) Final confrontation between Ray and Mendez is unexpected and affecting, and the film does end on an unusually downbeat note...but even there, you've got two people whispering "I love you" and me wanting to shout at the screen "You don't even know each other, you dolts!"

/Manon of the Spring/ (1986, Claude Berri): 68

...and holy crap, she was just unearthly beautiful back then. To the film's detriment, arguably—Ugolin's obsession with Manon isn't much removed from, say, Dudley Moore's with Bo Derek, apart from being tragic rather than comic; she's more a Vision of Pastoral Loveliness (with a grudge, obviously) than a full-fledged character. (Also, it's pretty hard to swallow that this is the first time he's seen her since she hit puberty, since she's clearly roaming all over the area. Smacks of a writer's contrivance, as does the entire village's bewilderment about the source of their water supply.) Depardieu is sorely missed, and Auteuil goes even further over the top (watching this film back-to-back with Un coeur en hiver would provide an ideal definition of "range," not just in terms of acting but also susceptibility to overpowering Béartitude), but Montand brings it all home in the finale, conveying César's grief and horror at the Oedipus-caliber revelation (which I'd somehow completely forgotten until the scene began, then it was OH SHIT THAT'S RIGHT ULTIMATE FAIL) without any need for histrionics. On the whole, a significantly lesser film than Jean de Florette, but to some extent that's just a natural consequence of it being not a sequel but a prolonged third act, tasked with all of the falling action and none of the rising. If I were prepared to consider the two as a single film (which I can't bring myself to do given that they were released several months apart, even in France), the rating would theoretically be 73, but I suspect 71 or 72—high B as opposed to low B+—would be more likely, simply because the relative disappointment of the second half would be fresher than the (rather depressing) highs of the first.

/Jean de Florette/ (1986, Claude Berri): 78

I see now why this appealed to me so strongly when I first started watching foreign-language films: It barely pauses for breath. Nuytten photographs the Provençal countryside with a painter's eye, but Berri's in too much of a hurry to let things get tourist-y; every shot, every line, every microscopic beat pushes the story inexorably forward. Which seems faintly vulgar from the perspective of today's almost uniformly contemplative festival fare, but once you make the adjustment it remains a sadistically compelling yarn, depicting the underhanded destruction of a well-meaning idiot in such laborious detail that it almost plays like agricultural torture porn. (It's very much to Pagnol's credit that Jean deserves much of the blame for his plight, despite the machinations of César and Ugolin. His absurd faith in manuals and statistics allows him to be repeatedly misled.) Auteuil now seems a tad overripe in his Igor-style affectations—this was the first film I ever saw him in, so I didn't realize at the time what a stunt his performance is—but Depardieu and especially Montand are magnificent, elemental yet wholly credible. Hard to know how to "judge" the film on its own, since it's really just the first half of a single four-hour movie, but you get enough of an inkling that Manon may prove troublesome in future to take the final shot's baptismal exultation with a grain of salt. Now to (re)adjust my expectations regarding Emmanuelle Béart's lips and breasts...

/Out of Sight/ (1998, Steven Soderbergh): 82

There is a scene missing from this movie. I don't know what it is, or should be, but I can acutely feel its absence. It would take place between "Gary" and "Celeste" (Best Scene, 1998 Skandies; was suddenly overpowering for me this time, as in tears flowing) and the Ripley break-in, and would complicate or undermine the romance in some way. As it is, that relationship is just too neat: They meet cute; they flirt from afar and when briefly crossing paths; the consummation finally happens in simultaneous flash-forward; and then it's straight to the finale and the showdown, with no time for apprehension or regret apart from some pillow talk (which is too soon). All of which, oddly enough, is by way of saying that I now recognize Out of Sight as more than the entertaining trifle it seemed to me upon release—there's a real, tangible desperation underlying much of the bluster, though Soderbergh's deceptively breezy, jazz-inflected rhythm makes it tricky to spot. And a lot of the credit goes to Lopez, whose admirably steely performance here has never been tarnished for me simply because I haven't seen her in anything since. (Between her and Andie MacDowell, I think we can officially declare Soderbergh a magician of some kind.) What makes the big hotel scene work, as much as her rapport with Clooney, is the measured, kind-but-firm way she shoots down the ad-exec douches before he gets there; her vulnerability overlaid with a heavy coat of self-confidence is the movie in miniature.

/American Psycho/ (2000, Mary Harron): 44

No significant change from what I wrote in this format at the time, though it's easier to appreciate the chameleonic nature of Bale's performance now that I've seen him in a dozen other adult roles. (Also, I hereby extend Chloë Sevigny's initial hot streak to this film. She's remarkable in her one "big scene," doing the sort of shyly self-effacing turn in which Zoe Kazan now specializes.) While I still haven't read the book—it seems like something I'd admire intellectually but find both tedious and repulsive—I suspect that the only way to preserve what's interesting about it would be to make a six-hour Dielmanesque exercise in repetitive stasis, with the ultraviolence only beginning to emerge around hour four. Absent that sense of horror slowly evolving from surface-obsessed minutiae, the scenario just seems too glibly satirical...and actually combining the pop-music exegeses with the murders and sexual abuse, as Harron does, defangs both completely, turning Bateman into a facile sketch-comedy idea. Admirable attempt, impossible task. Dept. Of Things I Guess I Knew But Had Never Really Consciously Realized: Reese Witherspoon's career was made by Legally Blonde, not by Election. Really bizarre to see her in such a nothing role in-between.


Y Kant Goran Rite said...

Witherspoon's role is limited, yes, but for me she was the highlight (in a way she hasn't been in any film since). I was pretty young when I saw the film and a then-recent and very enthusiastic Witherspoon convert (thanks to Election and Pleasantville) so I could be wrong. But I seem to remember her attacking her four minutes of screentime with the relish and assiduity and perfect pitch that she pretty much 'outgrew' post-Legally Blonde.

md'a said...

Huh, I did not see that. I mean, she's not bad or anything, but the role just doesn't give her much of anything to work with -- it's pretty generic haughty-bitch stuff.

Bilge said...

Funny. I always thought people knew who Witherspoon was thanks to the one-two punch of TWILIGHT and CRUEL INTENTIONS. Don't remember her at all from AMERICAN PSYCHO: Is there a chance her part was trimmed down?

Also, she's amazing in her feature debut, Robert Mulligan's fan-freaking-tastic MAN IN THE MOON.

md'a said...

Well, depends who we're talking about. I saw Man in the Moon in first-run, so I've been aware of Witherspoon for her entire career (and was very aware of her in Twilight, if you get my drift). I'm just saying she clearly wasn't yet a Star when she made American Psycho -- it's truly a nothing part, maybe five minutes of screen time and a single character trait. (She plays Bateman's snooty fiancée.) Entirely possible that she signed on before Election came out, though, it occurs to me now. It was just that I, too, had forgotten she was even in the film, and was startled that she was buried in the credits and barely even onscreen (in what is by no means a "cameo").

And oh look there's a pre-Mulholland Dr. Justin Theroux as one of Bateman's smug colleagues.

Bilge said...

Yeah, but I remember CRUEL INTENTIONS being kind of a big movie. And she got top billing along with Broderick for ELECTION.

I do think it's odd that she's got a nothing part in AMERICAN PSYCHO. (Again, I wonder if something got cut.) But I think it's probably more a case of weird misalignment of career trajectory and indie film production schedule, rather than a snapshot of her starpower (or lack thereof) at that given point.