24 August 2011

Viewing Journal: Week of 22-28 Aug

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.

The Guard (2011, John Michael McDonagh): 63

Plays like a cozier, friendlier version of Boorman's The General, allowing Gleeson the same freedom to run roughshod over everybody but striving to keep him fundamentally likeable. Which is problematic, but not so problematic that I didn't laugh. McDonagh doesn't always seem quite sure whether he's making a straight-ahead buddy comedy or an offbeat, flavorful slice of anti-authoritarian life à la Armitage, but he manages to make both approaches work to some degree, with the former anchored by Cheadle's deadpan incredulousness and the latter exemplified by yet another casually riveting performance from Mark Strong, whose continued relegation to stock villain roles I find utterly baffling. (Liam Cunningham does pungent work as well, though he's stuck with the "Ode to Billie Joe" riff, which feels very mid-'90s sub-Tarantino.) Emphasis is more on behavior than jokes, to the point where I've forgotten a clever line one character gets off but vividly recall his partner's delighted laughter in response; it's the kind of detail you don't consciously realize is missing from most movies until you finally see it. Still, I resisted The Guard for a good while because it just seemed too taken with its titular quasi-antihero, reveling in his bad behavior without even implicit qualification; his dalliance with the two hookers has no function save to further establish his nose-thumbing bona fides, which had already been made abundantly clear. Yeah yeah, he's a rebel, fook propriety -- what else you got? Gleeson's shrewd enough to ensure that Sgt. Boyle never becomes outright grating, but there's a lingering smugness surrounding the character that I can't fully shake.

/Fistful of Dollars/ (1964, Sergio Leone): 72

Hadn't yet seen Yojimbo the last time I watched this (in '96), and I must say it looked more impressive minus a direct, scene-by-scene comparison to near-perfection. Leone's still working out the bugs here to some extent, haphazardly constructing the style he'd refine over the next two films in the "trilogy" and then push to a monumental apotheosis with Once Upon a Time in the West; close-ups are imposing without quite being mythic, and he hasn't yet started dilating time in a way that creates the illusion of slow motion even at regular speed. Eastwood, however, seems to have arrived on the set with his steely persona fully established, ready to glower his way into iconic legend (with a crucial assist from Morricone, needless to say). His mild grimace when he realizes he's decked an innocent woman rather than a gunslinger sets the all-but-amoral tone: Oops, oh well. That he subsequently delivers her from bondage, by way of demonstrating that he isn't completely heartless, is the only non-scuzzy moment in a film that views humanity as a Darwinian nightmare, featuring The Man With No Name Except For Repeatedly Being Called 'Joe' as the species' most highly evolved predator. If it's sometimes a bit clumsy and amateurish, sheer conviction and enthusiasm largely compensate, though I do find myself wishing for even less dialogue. "When a man with a .45 meets a man with a rifle, the man with the pistol will be a dead man," says Ramon solemnly. "That's an old Mexican proverb." Confidential to Mexico: Get better proverbs.

/Donnie Brasco/ (1997, Mike Newell): 66

Wrote at length about this one upon its initial release, and I stand by that general assessment (while renouncing certain aspects of the prose style, plus it was 1997 so it takes me 100+ words just to say "[SPOILER!]"). Only real exception is my praise for Depp, who I then found "equally fine [vis-à-vis Pacino] in a much-needed change-of-pace role as an adult with recognizable human behavior patterns and emotions." Which of course perfectly describes the one variety of role in which Depp does not excel. As Brasco, he dials it down so low that he's almost generic—the performance is exactly what's required, in the sense that Donnie should appear somewhat nondescript (that's what allows him to infiltrate), but Depp isn't the kind of presence who can make nondescript riveting. He needs to be doing something, which unfortunately means that he overplays the tired domestic scenes that afford him an opportunity to yell a bit. Pacino, on the other hand, still mightily impresses in one of his least showy late-career turns; that he makes no attempt whatsoever to sell the poignance of Lefty's final scene, allowing his actions as scripted to rip our guts out, is the hallmark of a great actor with nothing to prove. Might have been a minor classic with a more muscular director than Newell at the helm—he was only two films away from Mona Lisa Smile.

Volcano (2011, Rúnar Rúnarsson): W/O

[Pedigree: Cannes '11 Fortnight; TIFF Discovery.]

Panic-stricken tourists fleeing hot molten lava: 0. Crotchety, quasi-suicidal just-retired geezers moping balefully into the middle distance: one too many. Not bad, just utterly devoid of inspiration; no doubt the dude gets shaken out of his lethargy by the stroke his long-suffering wife suddenly experienced right before I gave up, but two full reels of stultifying, formulaic set-up doesn't exactly boost one's confidence. Also, while I don't trust my aesthetic judgment of movies streamed on a computer, this looked cruddier than anything else I've watched that way, despite reportedly having been shot on 16mm. Hope that's a transfer issue of some sort and not me getting too accustomed to digital.

The Silver Cliff (2011, Karim Aïnouz): 64

[Pedigree: Cannes '11 Fortnight; TIFF CWC.]

Further proof, if any were necessary, that the easiest and most effective means of generating tension and excitement is to skip right past the Inciting Incident. Here, the protagonist (who we haven't even yet identified in that role, barring foreknowledge) goes from serene to frantic in the space of an ordinary, unobtrusive cut, for reasons initially and cannily unexplained; it's amazing how unreservedly one identifies with a character in crisis even—perhaps especially—when the nature of said crisis isn't known. By the time Aïnouz finally reveals what's going on, the hook is sunk deep enough to ward off any possible oh-is-that-all? reaction, especially given Alessandra Negrini's magnificently volatile performance as a woman who can't stand still but for the time being has nowhere to go. (I wouldn't have thought a movie could still pull off the old dance-your-stress-away setpiece, but Negrini and Aïnouz find a way to make it thrilling yet again. Though I must now declare a 10-year moratorium on Flashdance homages.) Goes a bit soft toward the end, following the introduction of a father-daughter combo who are equally adrift and ripe for tentative bonding, but even there the film mostly avoids cheap sentiment, remaining alive to e.g. the vaguely forbidding emptiness of an airport in the wee hours. A lovely, minor-key portrait of intolerable impotence gradually dissipating into weary acquiescence, framed by Rio's daylight cacophony and nighttime twinkling.

The Other Side of Sleep (2011, Rebecca Daly): 69

[Pedigree: Cannes '11 Fortnight; TIFF Discovery.]

Evidently I should seek out all the films at Cannes that are widely reviled, since I tend to prefer them to alleged triumphs like The Artist and Le Havre. Like Sorrentino and Bonello, Daly invests faintly absurd content with surprising force via sheer formal bravado—this movie is 100% pure rhythm, existing entirely in the juxtaposition of one shot to the next, with exquisite attention not just to composition but to duration (by which I mean not the standard "let's play this out at extraordinary length," but rather a harmonious interplay of varying shot lengths, so that the film shifts from staccato to legato and back again), contrast, direction of motion, etc. Negative reviews complain that it's insufficiently dreamlike for a movie about a sleepwalker, but that's the glory of it, actually: Daly's approach is intently anti-oneiric, an ambitious attempt to construct an entire film upon the sense of alarming disorientation one feels upon awakening. She can't quite sustain that for 90 minutes, but she comes thrillingly close; only in the final reel does the rather banal story assert itself strongly enough to disappoint. Not sure whether it's help or hindrance that her lead actress is such a dead ringer for Sissy Spacek circa Carrie—she's required only to be a striking presence, which mission accomplished, but that presence does at times feel a bit secondhand, as if leaning hard on the associations we can't help but make. At any rate, for my money this is the year's most striking debut (Martha Marcy May Marlene is a much better film but not nearly as cinematically accomplished); that it was so brutally dismissed (even by Blake, who loved House of Tolerance and at least tolerated This Must Be the Place) is dispiriting.

/The Magnificent Seven/ (1960, John Sturges): 57

Watched this "by accident," in the sense that I'd thought I'd seen it long, long ago, discovering only after the Blu-ray arrived in the mail that my first viewing was in April 2008. Clearly it makes quite the strong impression. But since I'd revisited Seven Samurai in the interim, I figured what the hell, and am thus now able to cite the one small way in which I think it improves on the original: Brad Dexter. Not so much his performance, which is barely there (it's kind of remarkable how indistinct most of the seven are; Brynner dominates to an insane degree), but the inspired idea to have one of the men convinced that there must be some secret financial agenda to the mission—it's a distinctly American touch that gives the film a little flavor of its own. (That he dies still believing untold riches await the survivors is Hollywood hokiness at its finest.) Otherwise paltry by comparison, devoid of the ferocity Kurosawa brought to battle scenes and downtime alike; Sturges plays it much jauntier, which makes the climax's 57% casualty rate and final dialogue exchange (identical to the original, as I recall) feel like a non sequitur. Still diverting, of course, and it's hard to say whether e.g. I'd find Horst Buchholz somewhat less irritating were I not acutely aware that he's butchering one of Mifune's greatest performances. Even on its own terms, though, it gives short shrift to too much of the ensemble—Robert Vaughn, in particular, gets almost nothing to do except stand around looking way dandier than everybody else, even though his character is perhaps the most potentially compelling on paper. It's not like there's 13 of them or anything.


Brett Buckalew said...

Even though I disagree, I totally get where you're coming from in describing Depp's performance in "Brasco" as being dialed-down to such a degree it risks becoming generic.

But saying that Depp never excels at playing normal feels like a huge generalization to me. I remember you're a fan of "Public Enemies," as am I, and unlike "Brasco," that's a movie totally dependent on Depp's (normal) star turn. I can't imagine anyone who likes that movie not liking Depp in it, especially considering...


...the two most resonant scenes, both in the third act, are Dillinger moseying into the FBI's "Dillinger Room" and Dillinger recognizing himself in "Manhattan Melodrama" while watching it. Depp's sublimely controlled and complex non-verbal acting is as key to these two scenes working as Mann's filmmaking artistry and subtextual brilliance. And Depp is neither cryptic nor maudlin in the way he offers the viewer a glimpse inside Dillinger's awareness of his own mortality.


md'a said...

I didn't say he can't do star turns. I said he's not terribly interesting as a regular guy. Which John Dillinger is not. Depp plays him way larger than life (appropriately); stoicism can be expressionistic.

Brett Buckalew said...

I didn't mean to imply that you think Depp can't do star turns. In my use of the phrase "star turn," I just meant to emphasize that "Public Enemies" puts Depp front and center to such a degree that the movie is dependent on his performance in order to work, whereas "Brasco" is equally if not more dependent on Pacino's star turn, so of course someone could theoretically like *that* movie without liking Depp in it, as you do. (I don't think anyone walked out of "Enemies" thinking, "man, Christian Bale walked away with that movie.")

But it's now clear that we disagree on whether Depp's Dillinger classifies as one of his "regular guy" performances or one of his "gigantic weirdo" ones. I would label it the former, so when I read your "Brasco" review where you said that Depp doesn't excel at playing normal people, I automatically thought, "wait a minute, what about 'Publice Enemies'?" I mean, I could see how Dillinger is less a regular guy than you or me, but compared to, say, Captain Jack Sparrow, he's just some dude.


md'a said...

"I mean, I could see how Andre the Giant is less an ordinary-sized guy than you or me, but compared to, say, the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man at the climax of Ghostbusters, he's just some dude."

Brett Buckalew said...

Haha, fair enough. It would be very un-Depp-fanboy-like of me to not acknowledge there's a gray-area middle ground between the freaks and the average joes in the Depp oeuvre, and I'm excited to hear from a friend who caught "Rum Diary" that his performance in that exists in said gray area.


Steve C. said...

Shame about VOLCANO; I remember rather liking Runarsson's short film THE LAST FARM when it screened at (I think) ND/NF several years back.

Then again, fifteen minutes of elegantly damp dourness > ninety-five minutes of same, most likely.

dd said...

re: VOLCANO, the grain structure of 16mm in my experience is pretty adversely affected by digital compression, and it's already quite grainy compared to high end digital formats.