11 June 2011

Viewing Journal: Week of 6-12 Jun

INTRODUCTION/SOB STORY/SAD PLEA: So as you may already know, I recently decided to try resuscitating my long-(mostly)-dead site, returning to the format of regular mini-reviews that I abandoned a decade ago when I became a full-time professional critic. That profession never paid particularly well (except by the hour), but I've reached the point now where I can't even make my moderate rent most months. And while I'm more than willing to find another source of income while I attempt to break into screenwriting (not as ludicrous as it may sound—I have an agent, am taking meetings in Hollywood, etc.), it turns out that the current job market is not exactly clamoring for a middle-aged dude whose résumé for the past 15 years consists entirely of "watched a bunch of movies then wrote about 'em." (Also, I currently live in a city with a large Hispanic population, which means that taking French instead of Spanish in high school and college has screwed me in terms of service/retail options.)

As a last-ditch attempt to claw my way out of this hole, I'm reluctantly asking regular readers to "subscribe" (on the honor system; there's no paywall of any kind) to my new monthly viewing journal, for whatever amount they feel it's worth to them—perhaps as little as $2 or $3. Believe me, I have no sad delusions about being able to earn a living in this way. I'm just trying to scrape together a few hundred extra bucks a month until things turn around for me, and unfortunately watching a bunch of movies and writing about 'em is all I'm really qualified to do. A bunch of folks have signed on already, and I thank them for their generosity; you can do likewise over at my original site ("since 1995").

Even if you'd rather not, though, or are just equally broke yourself (my condolences; solidarity bro), you're still welcome to read my rambling, unstructured thoughts on everything I see. (Since I can't afford right now to drive down to L.A. for rep screenings, I'm currently revisiting a lot of the canon as it's released on Blu-ray; in many cases these are classics that I saw once 15 or 20 years ago, when I first began devouring film history, and some sort of reconsideration is in order.) My intention was just to put these reviews up on my main site, but since creating this blog I've come to enjoy the opportunity that the comments provide to engage folks in conversation. So I'll post them here as well, weekly rather than monthly, in case anyone wants to yak back.

New York, New York (1977, Martin Scorsese): 73

Somehow never read much of anything about this one in advance, despite its eluding me for decades (until recently I saw older films only if/when a print screened somewhere in NYC), and so was utterly unprepared for its bracing amalgam of the abrasive and the artificial, pushed to a degree of potential discomfort rivaled perhaps only by Buffalo '66. First hour-plus is astonishing, right from the spectacularly witty V-J Day tracking shot that loses De Niro in a crowd of celebrating extras until he reaches his mark directly beneath a giant neon arrow pointing straight at him; Scorsese repeatedly creates an iconic shot or action only to render it absurd and/or ugly, as if exposing these tropes' underlying pathology. I think the first time I actually gaped was during the bit where De Niro kisses Minnelli as she's exiting the cab, which begins as a romantic cliché and then just goes on and on and on, with Minnelli lunging around the gutter in her stocking feet as she struggles to break free. Then comes the chintzy fake forest serving as backdrop to cinema's most half-assed declaration: "I love you. Well, I mean, I don't love you, I dig you, I like you a lot, and, you know..." By the second hour, it starts to become clear that the movie has no real narrative shape, being just a collection of stock scenes organized around a central conceit. Even then, though, it remains mesmerizingly, almost randomly digressive: a dramatic conversation gets interrupted and completely undermined by someone who wants De Niro's parking space, while in another scene the simple act of ordering drinks turns into a demented Abbott & Costello routine. Most folks consider that stuff inept, I gather, but it's clearly deliberate, and amazingly gutsy—you can see how Scorsese and De Niro got from here to The King of Comedy a few years later. Oddly enough, the parts that worked least well for me are the musical numbers, which are what people who dislike the film generally praise; I appreciate the function of Happy Endings vis-à-vis the actual ending, and am glad it was restored, but the numbers themselves are tuneless and clunkily staged, in a way that does not seem deliberate and wouldn't fit the conceit even if it did. (Also, I've always kind of hated the title song, and the movie didn't change that.) Exhausting, but essential.

/Scanners/ (1981, David Cronenberg): 66

Sure, it was a big step forward when Cronenberg started working with the likes of James Woods and Jeff Goldblum and Jeremy Irons. But there's something weirdly effective about several ostensibly bad performances in his early work, and I'm not sure that Scanners would necessarily be improved by replacing Stephen "apropos surname" Lack with an actor capable of modulating tone, expression or both. Presumably Cronenberg cast him primarily for his look, in both senses of the word, which is singular; while the rest of the cast (including Ironside, who's otherwise deliciously reptilian and deserved way more screen time) equates the act of scanning with constipation, Lack settles for a slightly more wide-eyed variation on his usual vacuum, coming across as discomfitingly inhuman. Movie itself suffers a bit from an excess of plot, and seems fairly tame compared to body-horror nightmares like Shivers and Rabid (the exploding head is basically a sight gag, albeit a good one), but it's still a remarkably assured toe-dip into the mass market, and far more stylishly directed than I'd remembered. Opening sequence makes terrific mobile-camera use of an anonymous food court (I'm not often thinking De Palma when watching Cronenberg), and the bit in which McGoohan's rather unfortunately named Dr. Ruth shows Cameron ancient footage of Revok, still bandaged from the incident that explains that creepy forehead scar, is a textbook example of how to make exposition visually arresting. Hardly a classic, but probably one of the better "transitional films" in any major director's filmography. Dept. of Repertory Fortuitousness: Jennifer O'Neill, the fairly obscure actress who plays the female lead, was also the female lead in Hawks' Rio Lobo, made 11 years earlier in a different country but seen for the first time by me just a week ago.

Bal (Honey) (2010, Semih Kaplanoglu): W/O

All walkouts are not created equal. I bailed on Süt (Milk), the previous film in Kaplanoglu's "Yusuf Trilogy," at TIFF '08, and in that instance felt happy to escape something that seemed suffocatingly affected. When Bal won Berlin last year, though, I resolved to give the guy another chance, and I'm not altogether sorry I did—this one is far more simple and direct (perhaps because it's about a tremulous little boy rather than a mopey young adult), evincing a hushed stillness that's actually rather appealing. Still, after 40 minutes (which is nearly half the film), I remained agreeably uninvolved, which is not the state of mind I'm shooting for, especially vis-à-vis the so-called "art film." So I cut my losses and moved on. That's a fairly typical W/O experience, for the record—doesn't necessarily mean the movie stinks on ice, only that it didn't ever grab me. That's Ed, How I Ended This Summer wuz robbed.

Super 8 (2011, J.J. Abrams): 58

Not sure I could be a more potentially receptive viewer, given that I was nearly the exact age of these kids in '79 (period details are impeccable, though there's a bit of Mad Men-style hindsight chortling) and now find myself longing for the comparatively ramshackle summer event movies of my youth. And the setup gets everything just right, from the silent economy of those first two shots (demonstrating a subtlety that goes sadly M.I.A. later on) to the cast of unknowns who come across as real, ordinary kids...plus the scarily gifted Ms. Fanning, whose zombie impression would raise gooseflesh + a boner on any teenage nerd. Frankly, I would have been perfectly happy had the film remained an acutely naturalistic American cousin to Son of Rambow. But Abrams has other plans, of course, and while it would be overly harsh to say that Super 8 derails along with the train, very little of the creature-oriented stuff seems particularly inspired—not even inspired by Spielberg. On top of which, title notwithstanding, the boys' shoot gets largely forgotten once the mayhem begins in earnest; even the anticipated Big Reveal of what the camera recorded that night—which Abrams postpones for close to an hour of screen time, whetting our appetite all the more—turns out to be pretty so-what?, merely confirming for our heroes what we've known all along. By the mawkish, incoherent climax, in which kid tells creature exactly what he himself (kid) needs most to hear, what had started out feeling loose-limbed and personal has become as factory-tooled as every other prospective blockbuster choking the multiplexes. A real shame.

Vera Cruz (1954, Robert Aldrich): 60

Strikingly, a Western that's almost entirely about Burt Lancaster's teeth. Aldrich keeps Lancaster's face as grimy as possible throughout, the better to set off those perfect white choppers, and of course the actor himself flashes a maniacal death grin every time he's challenged, provoked or just regarded for more than a split second. (Even the original half-sheet, pictured above, recognizes the motif.) In the film's most bizarre moment—indeed, one of the strangest flourishes I'm aware of in a Hollywood star vehicle from this period—Lancaster suddenly gazes into the camera as if it were a mirror (without an actual mirror being established in any way, either before or afterwards), combing back his hair with his hands and then brushing his teeth briefly with one finger; I had to stop the film and spend ten minutes racking my brain before I finally realized I was remembering that gesture from Godard's A Woman Is a Woman, and when I popped it in to check (this is why I have a DVD library) I found that Belmondo actually mentions Lancaster and Vera Cruz when he mimics that action. Still, it's a film of memorable bits more than a memorable film per se, trotting dutifully along familiar genre pathways and regularly bogging down in dull romantic interludes and overtly racist dance routines. Apart from the occasional spasm of gratuitous brutality, e.g. Lancaster smacking the Countess around (and insisting that she'll take it and like it), there's little indication that Aldrich's next film would be an apocalypse of sheer nihilism.

/Enter the Void/ (2009, Gaspar Noé): 48 [was 57]

One the one hand, only the memory-slideshow movement really works for me now—first-person prologue just demonstrates for the umpteenth time how clumsy and useless that conceit is (for one thing, the hands never look like they're where they ought to be relative to the "eyes"), and all the swooping and diving and plunging headlong into lightbulbs/drains/fetuses later on just feels like virtuoso technique for its own sake, Fincher's infamous journey through the coffeepot handle writ ludicrously large. On the other hand, that slideshow movement is way longer and even more stunning than I remembered: nearly a full hour of impressionistic eyeblink fragments, anchored by the consistent placement of actors within the frame even as backgrounds and color palettes constantly shift. (See also the awesome opening-credits sequence, which didn't yet exist when I saw the film at its Cannes '09 premiere: each name constantly mutating but also remaining the same.) Formally, it's every bit the equal of Malick's whirligig approach in Tree of Life (before that film settles down), so sustained in its bravura that you almost forget for the duration how insanely tedious everybody in this movie is. But then Noé returns to the present and starts up his corkscrew routine again, forcing us to endure Paz de la Huerta's ersatz pouting and shouting in real time. (He also keeps returning to Alex, Oscar's tiresome buddy, as if we actually care that that dude is scrounging meals from the most obviously art-directed garbage heap of all time.) Discussions of Irreversible inevitably focus on the shock elements, but there are three rich, full-bodied performances—Dupontel and Bellucci placed 5th and 6th, respectively, in the Skandies that year—at its center to provide some real gravity. Content with mannequins this time for some reason, Noé performs endless cartwheels in zero-g, only achieving some blunt force, ironically, during the long stretch in which he locks the camera down and lets the movie be associative rather than scenic.


Anonymous said...

"...while I attempt to break into screenwriting (not as ludicrous as it may sound—I have an agent, am taking meetings in Hollywood, etc.)"

This is what I'm interested in reading about MD'A, and what I'd consider paying dollars to scan. I'd love for you to elaborate on The Ruse some - perhaps a few articles detailing plot/theme/research methods/influences/progress within the system, etc.

Y Kant Goran Rite said...

Wow, I'd be incredibly eager to see a film you've written.

Meantime, on the subject of Honey, the phrase "suffocatingly affected" is apt. As is the phrase "the cleanest village in all Turkey". May the world never again be burdened with a mood piece revolving around a solemn father, a cute child, an exotic but thoroughly hygenic setting and antiseptic postcard imagery. (And yet, somehow, I fear the world will be. It probably has about 11 times already this year and I just haven't caught up yet.)

How I Ended This Summer wuz indeed robbed.

Solaris said...

This may be a bit too late, but I'd be interested in some comments on SOLARIS. Cause I now reread the discussion about SOLARIS II: THE CLOONEY YEARS on the Movie Nerd Group and noticed you had mostly bad things to say about the original.

Anonymous said...

I agree with you 100% about the casting of Stephen Lack in SCANNERS. The first time I saw it his performance was so distracting it kept me from enjoying the movie, but seeing it again years later I couldn't imagine a "better" actor in the role. He's a very distinctive cipher.

peevish said...

I personally found New York, New York never more (though never less) than mildly interesting. It works as a "hey, here's a weird thing Scorsese did once." I agree that the musical numbers didn't work, but allt he rest felt tedious to me as well. Mileage May Very, I suppose.

I think PayPal can do an automatic "subscriber" dealiebob where it'll draw down $2 a month automatically. For folks that might forget to come back and re-donate.

md'a said...

Looks like my stated beef with both the Tarkovsky and Soderbergh films nine years ago was that they failed to explore "memory and regret" in sufficient depth, which sounds dismayingly like me wanting Solaris to be Memento or something. Second viewing was flat-out hypnotic, and clearly reflects how much my taste has changed since I first started watching art films 20+ years ago. For example, I braced myself for the driving-in-Japan sequence, which I remembered being endless and pointless and painfully dull, and then it started and I was all This is awesome, and then it ended and I seriously thought: Already? I'm also pretty sure I was thrown as a kid by the dispassionate way that Kris puts Hari #1 in the rocket and blasts her into space, and probably thought there should be more conventional emoting involved all around, whereas now I can see clearly what Tarkovsky was doing. Probably need to revisit a lot of the Bresson films I saw too young as well...

Kent M. Beeson said...


Any reason why you're putting all the write-ups under one post instead of breaking them up individually?

md'a said...

Actually as I read more of my comments in that Nerd Group thread, it seems pretty clear that my memory of the Tarkovsky film, which I'd seen once over a decade earlier, was pretty vague. I was probably working largely from comparisons being made in reviews of the Soderbergh. (I stand by my assessment of that one, btw, which has problems that are entirely separate from the original.)

Also I made myself laugh nine years later:

"Hey guys. There is this device called a "metaphor" you might want to look into. This is when one thing kind of represents another thing. Many great artists have used metaphors in their work, for example Irwin Winkler's Life as a House in which life is represented by a house."

md'a said...

Any reason why you're putting all the write-ups under one post instead of breaking them up individually?

Not really. It just seems like a lot of consecutive really short posts would look dumb, somehow.

Ryan said...

Funny thing about the passage of time: upon a search for the Solaris discussion on the Movie Nerd Discussion Group, I discovered that I was one of the most active participants in the thread. Forgot I even ventured an opinion on that. Of course, 9 years later, I was still right and Mike was still wrong.

Anyone, good job with the belated realization that Tarkovsky's Solaris is ten kinds of awesome. Next, try Diary of a Country Priest.

Excellent analysis of New York, New York. As conceptually bold as the pic was, it's just too much of a grind by the end.

Anonymous said...

I've been hearing about this fabled Movie Group for years. Can someone elaborate on what it is and why everyone seems to be so secretive about it?

Jeff said...

Anonymous: Good question. The "Movie Nerd Group" was a mainly anonymous online gathering in which many online critics and anonymous people gathered to discuss the films of the cinema, many of them hoping for anonymity.

Anonymous said...

If you felt dissapointed by SUPER 8 give a chance to PAUL. Both are almost the same movie, but I find the later funny, way more solid and oddly lovely. Also, for your Skandies: Seth Rogen acting (like Paul's voice) deserves attention. The film works (for me) like a Beckettian study about the "Spielberg Generation" and despite a lame twist at the ending it's definitely worth-seen.