22 September 2011

Viewing Journal: Week of 19-25 Sep

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.

Warrior (2011, Gavin O'Connor): 46

Every time I thought this would-be emotional juggernaut had achieved maximum hokiness, it somehow managed to get even hokier. Odds are I could have rolled with Fighter Who Despises His Formerly Alcoholic Father Nonetheless Needs To Train With Him, But Strictly Business Pop No Mushy Stuff, or Retired Fighter Can't Afford His Mortgage On Salary As High-School Physics Teacher, Decides To Return To The Ring Even Though He Promised His Wife He Was Finished With All That And Will Now Have To Listen To Her Whine Until She Inevitably Turns Into Adrian In Rocky II, or Out-of-Nowhere Mixed Martial Arts Sensation Turns Out To Be AWOL War Hero Who Pledges Entire $5 Million Purse To Widow Of Fallen Comrade Should He Win, But He's Headed To Jail Now Regardless, or Get This The Two Dudes Who Have Made It To The Finals Of This Elimination Tournament Against All Odds By Defeating The Most Brutal Competition Imaginable Just Happen To Be Brothers, One Of Whom Holds A Sizable Grudge Against The Other And Refuses To Reconcile Outside The Cage. Any of those potential male weepies, pick one. But not all of them freakin' combined. O'Connor hedges his bets by splitting the movie in two, depicting Joel Edgerton's half more or less naturalistically and Tom Hardy's half as pure myth—an approach that sounds reasonable enough on paper but mostly clanks on screen. (It's like two hours of cross-cutting between Jimmy Stewart in Bend of the River and Eastwood's Man With No Name.) Judging from reviews, the film's many fans recognize how shameless and manipulative it all is and just don't care. It got to them, which I can respect and appreciate. For whatever reason, though, I resisted.

Moneyball (2011, Bennett Miller): 65

Fascinating even to an avowed hater of the national pastime like myself—they should chuck the games entirely and just televise managers' strategy sessions, if you ask me. We'll always wonder what Soderbergh's version would have looked like, but there's something to be said for this approach, which basically follows the underdog-sports template but focuses almost exclusively on what's happening off the field, thereby fulfilling the desires of romantics and wonks at the same time. Helps that Zaillian and/or Sorkin (more likely the latter) keep things so zingy—you could splice the Ricardo Rincón trade into His Girl Friday, just about—and that Jonah Hill was somehow persuaded to dial it way back and steal scene after scene with his befuddled, deer-in-the-headlights stillness. Never really delves below the surface, though, which was driven home hard for me somehow by the only moment in the film that suggests real feeling, despite being a total throwaway buried deep in the closing credits. ("You're such a loser, dad.") And I wish some sort of lip service had been paid to the question of whether it's in baseball's long-term best interest if teams can beat the system by assembling a perfect combination of mediocre athletes, many of whom are valuable solely because they frequently get walked (though I gather that the film's portrait of sabermetrics is a gross simplification). Still, Moneyball held my attention for well over two hours, which is more than I can say for any actual ball game I've ever endured.

Genevieve (1953, Henry Cornelius): 65

Pleasant little goof of a comedy...though it doesn't exactly sell you on the fun of owning an antique automobile, given how frequently they apparently break down (even when cared for obsessively). Sharp on the absurdity of male competitiveness in general, less so when it comes to the subdivision involving romance and jealousy—suggestion of a lingering attraction between Wendy and Ambrose just kinda peters out, and the opportunity for Alan to get all va-va-voom when Kay Kendall shows up is sadly wasted. And I confess I don't know what to make of the bizarre, self-contained interlude in which Kendall's snobby socialite blows the lid off the joint via jazz trumpet, which turns the character on her head for one brief moment before reverting her to broad stereotype. But the climactic race to Westminster Bridge makes for a rollicking succession of polite British gotchas, and it's hard not to choke up a bit when Alan can't bring himself to interrupt the old duffer who wants to reminisce about his history with the '04 Darracq, even though listening potentially means losing both race and car. (Likewise, Ambrose loses ground earlier because he can't not give a lift to some dude who needs to fetch a nurse for his pregnant wife. What a bunch of softies.) Hard to judge from a single film how much of its flavor is attributable to Cornelius, but if someone would be so kind as to release an equally improbable Blu-ray of Passport to Pimlico, I'd be glad to find out.

/Manhunter/ (1986, Michael Mann): 71

Must play like CSI: Miami Vice to folks discovering it now, but its emphasis on forensic minutiae was unprecedented at the time, and arguably as bold as Mann and Spinotti's color-coded visual scheme. First half sticks closely to Harris, emulating his procedural directness while simultaneously creating operatic counterpoints unique to the film; apart from the unfortunate need to have Graham speak his thoughts aloud, which sometimes comes off a bit cheesy ("DIDN'T YOU, YOU SON OF A BITCH?!?"), it's a textbook example of how to adapt a novel in a way that combines respect for the source and cinematic innovation to maximum effect. Alas, the convoluted second half of Red Dragon would defeat almost any attempt at streamlining. Mann sensibly ditches Dolarhyde's entire backstory, but he also rewrites the final act to allow Graham and his family a measure of peace, which voids the film of all meaning—a decision foreshadowed by the otherwise odd choice to make the kid Graham's actual son rather than his stepson, while retaining scenes in which Graham struggles to earn the kid's confidence. (No father treats his own offspring with such studied reserve, unless he's been away from home for years or something.) Even when I saw Manhunter in first-run, unfamiliar with the book, it was clear that something was missing—I just didn't yet know what it was. Priming the viewer for an abyss that gazes also, Mann ultimately settles for an abyss that blinks a few times before starting to feel vaguely uncomfortable and looking at its shoes. Also: Cox's "Lecktor" is hammier than I remembered, far from ideal, but he still wipes the floor with Hopkins' sepulchral self-consciousness.

The Stendhal Syndrome (1996, Dario Argento): 28

Part of me admires the bait-and-switch Argento employs here, in which the titular malady (which seems an unrewarding dramatic fulcrum from the outset—sensitive souls quaking at the sight of Art can't help but look goofy) gets all but chucked aside halfway through in favor of something straight out of the De Palma playbook. Trouble is, the new conceit demands a densely layered performance, and while I know Asia has her fans today, I think they'd have to admit that her range at the time was, uh, limited. Meanwhile, Dad's exploration of hokey CGI apparently commanded the bulk of his attention, meaning there are few elegant camera moves or arresting compositions to distract from his ineptitude with actors and his general Z-grade approach to the mundane. I mean, seriously: look at just the first minute of this clip. I could write an entire essay solely on the awfulness of its opening exchange—"Where are we?" "Rome. But you can't pass here"—starting with the dialogue's sheer absurdity (the dude is from Rome, has never seen Asia before, doesn't know she's just stepped through a painting on a wall in Florence, might as well be speaking directly to camera), then marveling at how the actor manages to turn toward her in a way that communicates his awareness of his impending cue, then recoiling in horror from his one-two combination of artlessly raised brow and meaningless palms-up gesture, etc. Subsequent speech from Inspector Manetti could fuel an entire chapter on Verisimilitude, hilarious and clearly unintentional absence of. (That's not even considering that he's badly dubbed—as is Asia, I'm pretty sure.) I can tolerate this level of clumsiness when it's just downtime between stunning set pieces, but it's mostly front and center here, and truly painful.

23rd Psalm Branch (1967, Brakhage): 53

Here we go again. I like Brakhage. Just don't think his style translates especially well to feature length—he's a short-form artist. And there are a number of fine shorts embedded in this sprawling intimate epic, notably the opening horrors-of-war montage and a sequence in which massed armies and geometric dots seem to do battle for the frame. Plus he throws in multiple abstract hand-painted interludes, though I'm not precisely sure what they're doing here. No doubt Fred Krumper [name changed lest the actual person find this in a Google search and appear to make pedantic, humorless pronouncements] could walk me through 23rd Psalm Branch, explicating each movement in turn; if I set my mind to it, I could probably even formulate a hypothesis of my own regarding the film's gradual shift from images of horrific violence to relatively benign portraits of Vienna and East Berlin, bridged by flashes of color, black leader, and repeated shots of Brakhage (I assume) scrawling notes on a pad of paper. But I don't feel as if conscious understanding would help all that much. At this length, the effect of his rapid-fire free-association is just plain numbing. (In fact, it's kinda numbing even to watch a bunch of his shorts in quick succession, which is why I'm gonna spend a couple of weeks working through the second volume of By Brakhage, rather than a couple of days.) That he made so few films longer than 30 minutes or so suggests that he understood that on some level himself.

Hop-o'-My-Thumb (2011, Marina de Van): 51

Did Bluebeard and The Sleeping Beauty rake in tons of European coin, to the point where the producer decided that Breillat isn't moving quickly enough and sought out another French director, preferably female, to helm a psychosexual Perrault adaptation? I was previously unfamiliar with this particular fairy tale, but it's more or less the same narrative as "Hansel and Gretel," with a different configuration of siblings and an ogre in lieu of a witch; apart from the daughters smacking their lips at the prospect of eating the boys—a striking interlude that speaks vividly to male fears of female sexuality—there isn't much in the way of subtext here. Nor does De Van really demonstrate a coherent formal strategy, unless "make it murky" qualifies. Really, the only reason to see this is to enjoy Denis Lavant's almost literal scenery-chewing as the ogre, who eventually puts on some magic boots or something and grows to enormous size but for most of the film is just a completely ordinary-looking dude, with no ogre-like qualities save the ability to smell human flesh. "Overcompensate!" De Van apparently told Levant, and so he does, albeit to less hilariously grotesque effect than in Carax's Tokyo! short. All in all, though, this is a trifle, seemingly made to serve a market that as far as I can tell doesn't actually exist. In My Skin remains a better Cronenberg movie than Cronenberg has made in many years, but it's looking more and more like a fluke.


Steve C. said...

Gotta ask - why even bother with STENDHAL? It's not as bad as some of Argento's post-OPERA works, but it does fit pretty snugly into the sudden, sharp decline.

md'a said...

It has at least one defender amongst the Nerd Group. As for why I watched it before classics like Opera and Deep Red that I haven't yet seen either: because it's one of a handful of Blus that Netflix carries and Blockbuster doesn't, which I'm trying to see before I dump Netflix/Quikster/Defunctomatic altogether prior to the next billing cycle next week.

Slayton said...

I'm happy that you like In My Skin! I disagree that it is particularly Cronenbergian, though - I like that it is a film that explores how we relate to our own bodies (an important theme but one rarely covered on screen) but I think it takes pains not to hit those marks through "body horror". IIRC the gore was barely seen?

Why did you skip Breathing at TIFF? It is a modest little film but a really good one, and the lead actor's performance is brilliant.

md'a said...

In My Skin is a total gorefest, Slayton. Really hard to watch (and I've seen it more than once).

Breathing just didn't fit into my schedule, unfortunately, and they didn't have it in the video library.

Andrew Dignan said...

RE: Moneyball

"Gross simplification" doesn't even scratch the surface. The arguable value of sabermetrics aside, the 2002 Oakland A's had the league's Most Valuable Player (Miguel Tejada) and best pitcher/Cy Young winner (Barry Zito) neither who play any role at all in the film (the latter literally isn't even mentioned once in a 2 hour + film). Not that it ultimately matters because I agree it's an entertaining film, but the whole "island of misfit toys", underdog narrative the film weaves is 75% bullshit.