07 July 2011

Viewing Journal: Week of 4-10 Jul

If you haven't already done so, be sure to read my update on the whole subscription-donation aspect of this journal. Short version: I no longer desperately need your spare change, but you might want to keep sending it now and again anyway.

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.

/Das Boot/ (1981, Wolfgang Petersen): 64

Here's an odd syllogism: (1) At 209 minutes, this movie is about an hour too long. (2) The original theatrical cut ran 149 minutes. (3) 209 - 149 = 60. And yet (4) I'm pretty sure I wouldn't prefer the shorter version. By all accounts, the additional hour in the "Director's Cut" (which is all I've seen, twice now) consists almost entirely of character stuff, and I wouldn't want to lose any of that; given the film's experiential nature and essential plotlessness (logline: "U-Boat crew tries not to die"), it's crucial that we get to know these men, observe them during the long stretches of claustrophobic inactivity that accounts for most of their time underwater. What winds up feeling a tad repetitive and monotonous at 3.5 hours is the rhythm of mundane downtime followed by loud alarm followed by the camera hurtling improbably quickly through narrow hatches and corridors followed by shots of the men looking anxious as the chief counts off the number of meters they've descended and the hull cracks and groans under the pressure. Petersen cycles through that at least three times, with only minor variations, and so the movie gets progressively less exciting even though the stakes keep getting raised (and becomes retroactively less exciting after the final scene, which is historically semi-accurate but feels cheaply ironic nonetheless). Still plenty engrossing, of course, and it's too bad Hollywood has never quite known how to use Jürgen Prochnow, whose steely charisma here hardly suggests the generic Eurovillains he's been stuck playing ever since.

/A Fish Called Wanda/ (1988, Charles Crichton): 84

"Oh, I'm so very, very, very, very ssssssffffffFUCK YOU!!!!!" Kevin Kline's absurdist embodiment of American idiocy (as seen through English eyes, in what's clearly equal parts admiration and revulsion) remains the most inspired comic performance of my lifetime—he's just dazzling to watch, with every impulsive action minutely choreographed, a meathead's ballet. But I'm not sure I'd ever appreciated how sensationally good Jamie Lee Curtis is as well. Wanda as written demands a tricky balancing act between shrewd self-interest and screwball insouciance—gotta imagine your Anistons and Witherspoons would kneecap each other for a part this juicy—and Curtis walks the tightrope briskly, without once faltering. Her wistful tone when she asks Cleese if he's rich manages to sell the central romance in a matter of seconds while maintaining the character's odd integrity, thereby avoiding the drippy third-act epiphany in which she Learns What's Truly Important and magically becomes a better person, which is what's killing contemporary Hollywood comedies. Speaking of which, could we find or perhaps breed some writers who know how to create plots that actually function independent of the jokes, as this one does? (Halfway through, when Otto's attempt to apologize smacked into Archie robbing his own house to retrieve Wanda's locket, I thought, oh, right, Cleese wrote Fawlty Towers.) In fact, the only part of the movie that doesn't really work for me is Palin and the dogs—partly because it's the same simple gag over and over again, but mostly because it feels disconnected from everything else, a series of interludes that could be excised without being missed. Well, apart from Otto's gleeful cackling. "So the old lady's gonna m-m-meet with an accident, eh, K-K-K-Ken? I love watching your ass when you walk, is that beautiful or what?! Don't go near him! He's mine! A pound says you won't kill her!"

[Aside: I find it almost unbelievable, from today's perspective, that this is only the third-ranked comedy on my current 1988 top ten list. That year also gave us Bull Durham and Beetle Juice*—not to mention Midnight Run, which pending a revisit sits a couple notches below Wanda. At the time, it didn't seem like we were in the midst of a Renaissance (and I should note for the record that I also sat through e.g. The Great Outdoors and Hot to Trot in '88), but I would just about keel over now if four mainstream comedies this strong came out in a single year.]

[[* Complete Fucking Tangent: After all these years, I've reluctantly made the switch to two words after carefully examining the title card, which clearly includes a space between them. What's interesting is that the animated series, launched just a year later, duplicates the design (in color), but closes it up into one word, acknowledging that the marketing title ultimately won out. I however am too anal-retentive to be inconsistent in these matters. See also Chung King Express.]]

/13 Assassins/ (2010, Takashi Miike): 68 [was 74]

Thirteen is just too many. Marveled again at the brisk economy of the extended final setpiece—a seeming contradiction in terms, and wholly unexpected given Miike's general tendency toward slapdash construction—but this time I was far more conscious of how completely anonymous most of the wreckin' crew are, even though half of the movie amounts to slow prelude. It's not so much that the buildup is pokey, as many charge, but that it emphasizes the wrong things; Yakusho goes around enlisting folks but never tests anybody, never experiences doubt or fear. It's more like ticking items off a checklist: badass ronin, nervous youngster, jovial fat dude, Mifune wannabe, etc. Consequently, it doesn't mean anything when the bodies start falling. Miike executes a breathtaking coup de cinéma at one point, for example, showing Badass Ronin's death from the sideways POV of (I guess) his acolyte, who's slumped horizontally and breathing his own last, but I'm responding to it entirely on a formal level, as I would to a brilliantly directed excerpt of a movie I've never seen. I don't actually know who the acolyte is—that's just a guess based on the subtitles (he croaks "Master...."). It's a skillful, exciting movie, and I enjoyed revisiting it, but there's a dry detachment here that precludes greatness, or even the near-greatness I thought I saw at Toronto last year. (I was tired.) Only when the nude, limbless woman is writhing on the floor, or the mortally wounded villain is crawling through the mud in unexpected terror, does Miike seem fully present.

/Sweetie/ (1989, Jane Campion): 49

Didn't much like this 20 years ago, either, but now I feel like I understand why not. There's a strange sort of underlying desperation at work here—a lurching about, for lack of a better phrase, that's also quasi-fractally evident in Campion's oeuvre as a whole. Would you guess that Sweetie, The Piano, In the Cut and Bright Star were all by the same filmmaker if you somehow saw them sans credits and without any foreknowledge? Likewise, Sweetie itself sports an inherently unstable tone, strenuously wacky yet deadly serious; the film accumulates odd touches and unexpected digressions the way bag ladies collect random bits of societal flotsam and jetsam. (Was it Chandler or Hammett who advised fellow writers of crime fiction to have someone burst into the room brandishing a gun whenever a scene started to feel dull? This is like the art-movie version of that strategy. "Hmm, treading water here. Road trip to see Mom and the jackaroos! Aussie hoedown!") Campion employs clunky, blatant symbols like the Sickly Tree That Represents Their Relationship, yet doesn't so much allude to the apparent lifelong history of incest between Sweetie and her father as mention it in passing, only to conclude on that note as if it somehow serves as a tragic eulogy. Individual scenes impress, and compositions are consistently striking (that's a framegrab from Sweetie up top), but it feels more like a collection of shorts about the same kooky family than a single coherent feature. And I really didn't care for the one about the naked fat chick in the treehouse.

Legend (1985, Ridley Scott): 48

Wondering if this might have worked better with some sort of real-world bookending device for Mia Sara's character, though I guess that would just turn it into Mirrormask (upon which this must have been an influence, seems to me). Part of that desire no doubt stems from my personal distaste for high fantasy—even Lord of the Rings mostly puts me to sleep, frankly—but it's hard to imagine anyone being thrilled by such a dour, monochromatic battle between Light/Good and Darkness/Evil, utterly bereft of even an implicit correlation to planet Earth. Especially when the forces of righteousness are represented by Tom Cruise at his most hilariously fey (love that constant all-fours crouch!), whereas Tim Curry, who miraculously creates a compelling, seductive villain from underneath what looks like roughly 500 lbs. of makeup and appliances, has you rooting for eternal winter and shadow. Thankfully, I was able to come to Legend with moderate expectations, knowing full well in advance that Scott is fundamentally a superb craftsman who rises and falls with the material. Had I shown up as a hardcore cinephile in 1986, salivating for the next visionary work by the unmistakable genius who'd made only The Duellists, Alien and Blade Runner, and who would surely soon achieve the lofty, imposing stature of a Coppola or Kubrick, no doubt I would have exited the theater in tears. Today, on the other hand, I can mutter, "Well, that was the usual hodgepodge of weightless ultragloss, but at least it wasn't as stupid as A Good Year or as tedious as Robin Hood."


Bilge Ebiri said...

(Sorry, accidentally deleted my comment. Here it is again.)

Do you feel at all like you missed something by seeing LEGEND on video? I've never seen it on a big screen and I keep wondering if I might enjoy it more if I were to see it on some huge-ass screen. Other than that, I pretty much second your review.

md'a said...

I always feel like I missed something by watching a film on video. It's not my preference, and I'm only doing so now because driving 55 miles to L.A. for rep screenings on a regular basis isn't financially feasible.

That's Ed, Blu-ray has brought the home viewing experience closer to a print-quality standard than I would have dreamed possible a decade ago. It's variable, of course, but some of these discs truly look astonishing...and not in the artificially glossy way that Theo bemoans, either. I'd love to show him Criterion's edition of BIGGER THAN LIFE.

Anyway, LEGEND would likely be slightly more gorgeous in 35mm, but that would hardly solve the problem of its essential emptiness. It just doesn't seem to have any compelling reason to exist, really.

Bilge Ebiri said...

RE: Ken and the dogs. I always thought that running gag was not only funny, but also nicely set up Ken's {SPOILER} killing of Otto later on. ("R- r- reveennge!") Which otherwise might have seemed a bit out of place in a comedy where no one else (save for the old lady) dies, as I recall.

Also this movie is way better than BULL DURHAM or BEETLE/JUICE in my opinion.

Paul C. said...

Bilge- if you listen closely you can hear Ken say, "Rrrrr-rr-revenge... ffor... WANDA!" So while he's clearly upset about having to do the dogs in, he's most upset about the killing of his fish, which was of course more personal to him, and inexplicable to boot, given that there was no practical reason for it to happen. Also, {SPOILER} Otto doesn't die. He appears on the wing of the plane as Archie and Human Wanda fly away.

Still, you're right that the movie just wouldn't be the same without Ken. Perhaps that'd be true with a more pedestrian actor in the role, but Palin is just so perfect- his performance is the equal of Kline's, to these eyes- that he pulls it off.

md'a said...

According to unnecessary end titles that I'd completely forgotten existed, Otto emigrates to South Africa and becomes Minister of Justice.

No real reason for Ken to be angry at Otto about the dead dogs, is there? Otto didn't ask him to kill the old lady, nor did he interfere with any of the assassination attempts. It's entirely revenge for the fish.

Anyway, I didn't mean to suggest eliminating Palin/Ken entirely. But each of the dog-killing bits felt like a dip in the energy level to me this time. Again, partly because the joke doesn't really escalate—just gets repeated twice.

Anonymous said...

Since (like me) you're now a stickler for BEETLE JUICE in lieu of BEETLEJUICE, this one's worth noting as well: http://www.shillpages.com/movies/ghostbusters1984beta.gif

Anonymous said...

Crap! Sorry, didn't realize it was a few characters too long.

md'a said...

Ah, but that one is ambiguous. You can argue that its division onto two lines is merely a design choice. (Vincenzo Natali chose not to do the CUBE title in a cube shape, turns out, but he easily could have—we wouldn't therefore call the film CU BE.)

Bilge said...

Ah, I'd totally forgotten about those end titles and Otto showing up on the airplane wing. And I'm not sure I ever heard the "for Wandaa!" Which is odd, since I've seen this film like a dozen times (just not recently).

I still say though that the dog-murder subplot helps Ken hold more of a grudge against Otto. I mean, I dunno, the idea of an animal-lover being forced into a position where he keeps killing lovable dogs is pretty funny (if also totally macabre). In a way it's the darkest thing in the movie.

But I get md'a's point about it not really developing in any way. At the same time though that's also kind of why it's funny. It just keeps happening.

md'a said...

I still say though that the dog-murder subplot helps Ken hold more of a grudge against Otto. I mean, I dunno, the idea of an animal-lover being forced into a position where he keeps killing lovable dogs is pretty funny (if also totally macabre).

But he's not being forced into that position by Otto in any way. He's being forced into it by George, the dude in prison. All that stuff would be happening even if Otto didn't exist.

Bilge said...

Correct me if I'm wrong (again, it's been a while since I've seen it) but doesn't Otto also goad Ken about killing the old lady? I seem to recall him betting Ken that he couldn't do it or some such thing.

I'd forgotten that it was George who ordered the old lady's killing. Still, I thought it was a pretty funny running gag.

md'a said...

Correct me if I'm wrong (again, it's been a while since I've seen it) but doesn't Otto also goad Ken about killing the old lady? I seem to recall him betting Ken that he couldn't do it or some such thing.

You're not wrong, but he was gonna rub her out anyway. There's no reason why he'd blame Otto for the dogs. He's avenging his fish. As Paul noted, he even says so. Not that any of this really matters...