05 October 2011

Viewing Journal: Week of 3-9 Oct

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.

/Scarface/ (1983, Brian DePalma): 52

Considerably more nuanced than one would guess based on its cultural legacy, though that's still no excuse for it being three hours long. As usual with rise/fall narratives, the rise consistently thrills but the fall is kind of a drag; Tony never comes across as someone who'd wind up face-diving into giant mounds of cocaine, and it's borderline offensive, to say nothing of ridiculous, that he's ultimately toppled not by greed or envy or hubris—or even by his token Hecht-derived overprotectiveness toward his sister—but by his refusal to allow innocent women and children to be murdered. Montana the Martyr, {spit-take}. By powerful contrast, the film takes amazingly realistic pains, just for example, in depicting his conquest of Pfeiffer's empty beauty, having her tacitly encourage him by not protesting when he declares his intentions, but also acknowledging that she'd stick to Loggia's kingpin until he's actually killed, then just gather her things in resignation. Combination of Stone and De Palma can be bracing, too, most notably of course in the infamous chainsaw scene—for two decades, I'd remembered only the actual hideousness (which isn't all that explicit, turns out), but henceforth I'm more likely to recall the camera elegantly turning away from the approaching carnage, drifting out the window and across the street to where Tony's buddies wait in the car, listening to music and flirting with some random girl who's wandered by. As for Pacino, either you enjoy him making "cockroach" a three-syllable word or you don't. It's an absurd performance but riveting nonetheless, the unapologetic embodiment of all things uncouth; every sentence and gesture, no matter how fleeting or casual, amounts to "fuck you."

The Color Wheel (2011, Alex Ross Perry): 41

[Pedigree: Sarasota '11; Locarno.]

"There are people who watch this film and say they find the characters uninteresting or overly irritating. Those people are assholes who either have the most inexplicably charmed lives or a deluded sense of self-satisfaction for crafting a world free of conflict, larger-than-life personalities, or actual human beings." Or maybe we assholes just don't enjoy watching people who talk exactly like that at 500 wpm in allegedly casual conversation. Barely tolerable protagonists aren't the problem here—I adore Margaret, Buffalo '66, The Forest for the Trees, and numerous other deliberately off-putting films, and I fully respect what Perry and Altman are trying to do. I just don't think they do it very well, either as writers or as actors. Their dynamic feels almost Borscht Belt, like Henny Youngman doing mumblecore: no actual jokes, but nonstop belligerent patter that falls into an unrewarding chasm between verisimilitude and comedy. On paper that may sound intriguing, but as executed it often plays as if Saturday Night Live had decided to allot 12:50 a.m. sketch time to a couple of microindie film geeks. (The scene with the motel clerk, in particular, is cringeworthy in all the wrong ways.) Intended to W/O, but various admiring reviews more or less conceded the film's insufferability and spoke vaguely of some climactic coup de cinéma that justifies the ordeal, so I forged on; what actually happens is that Perry and Altman make a blatant bid for sympathy by surrounding their merely irritating fuckups with cartoon cretins (I gave up hope when one dude poured a glass of wine into Colin's shirt pocket for no reason and he just stood there blankly watching), then conclude with an ostensibly shocking turn of events that frankly just feels like a Hail Mary pass—the kindest adjective that comes to mind is "unpersuasive." (Yes, it's foreshadowed, and no, that doesn't help.) I'm not writing Perry off yet, but judging from The Color Wheel he's got more ideas than chops.

/Bullets Over Broadway/ (1994, Woody Allen): 75

Pretty much the last gasp of Allen as a prodigious comic voice—he's made some movies I like since, but none primarily because they're hilarious. "Yeah, I did a musical revue in Wichita. Maybe you heard of it, it was called Leave a Specimen." He just ran out of those at some point. Wish he didn't state the film's theme quite so bluntly, with multiple discussions of whether artists do/should create their own moral universe—much more than Husbands and Wives, this film feels like a direct response to the Soon-Yi scandal—but the fact that it's couched within such a broad, goofy comedy makes it go down fairly easy, especially since the premise itself doesn't exactly qualify as subtle (yet still works like gangbusters). Cusack makes for one of the more successful pseudo-Woodys, and has a fabulous rapport with Palminteri—their scene together in the bar may be unique in Allen's filmography, in that it genuinely looks like two people having a conversation rather than reciting dialogue. (There's even a non-strategic lull!) But then, the entire cast excels. Terrific though Wiest is, I'd have given the Oscar to Tilly, whose riff on Lina Lamont threatens to out-screech the original; Broadbent, for his part, deserves some sort of special award for making his character more than just the lazy, slow-fuse fat joke that existed on paper (and unfortunately portended the wit quotient of crap like Small Time Crooks and Curse of the Jade Scorpion). Not one of Woody's greatest, by any means, but so much sharper, funnier and more assured than most of what's followed (including this year's inexplicably well-regarded mediocrity) that in retrospect it looks nigh-well miraculous. Had I known what was coming, I wouldn't have shrugged.

/Wings of Desire/ (1987, Wim Wenders): 54

Think I'd love this as a silent film, as it's mostly the poetic language that puts me off. Whenever human thoughts are just an indecipherable buzz in a language I don't speak, as in crowd scenes, I mentally project myself into the lives of those random faces, sometimes to deeply moving effect...but then Damiel or Cassiel will zero in on somebody in particular, and we'll hear her saying things like "Longing. Longing for a wave of love that would stir in me. That's what makes me clumsy. The absence of pleasure. Desire for love. Desire to love," and the spell is immediately broken. (Peter Falk's internal monologue is so comparatively mundane that I wonder whether he wrote much or all of it himself.) Also, Damiel's decision to "fall" seems either under- or overdramatized—I don't need the entire movie to be about his transition from spirit to flesh (as I gather is the case in City of Angels, which I never saw), but having him take the plunge 3/4 of the way through, only to watch Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds and listen to Solveig Dommartin's (sigh) poetic monologue (thankfully only about five minutes long, rather than the 15 or so it had become in my memory), seems like a half-assed attempt to impose some sort of structure upon what's really just an unusual specimen of city-symphony. Everybody just shut up, stop doing things, and let the camera glide through the Staatsbibliothek and alongside the Wall that would no longer exist just two years later. Can you not see that you're creating a beautiful time capsule, not a drama? (Or a goddamn poem?)

/Margaret/ (2011, Kenneth Lonergan): 80

Now that I've read a draft of the screenplay (184 pages, dated 15 July 2003), it's clear that Lonergan was in no way attempting to "find the movie" in the editing room, as various news stories have suggested—what's onscreen is pretty much exactly what he conceived, except that giant chunks of it are missing. He evidently spent years trying to figure out how to cut the film down to less than 150 minutes without totally crippling it. Which was in fact a near-impossible task, as its meaning is encoded in its sheer muddled sprawl—it's as if someone had forced Akerman to bring Jeanne Dielman in at 149:59. What's amazing is how close it nonetheless comes to magnificence, which is in part a testament to how stubbornly Lonergan clung to various semantic debates ("bravo/a/i," "strident," Lear IV.i) that would surely seem like obvious cuts to Searchlight suits. And what I previously wrote about him using messiness as an organizing principle turns out to be an understatement. At the (minor, I think) risk of getting into trouble, let me share with you two pages from a scene that didn't make it into the release version, just by way of demonstrating what Lonergan's intentions were, and how fortunate we probably are to have even this long-delayed, heavily bleeding remnant. If I handed these pages in to my agent, he would have me committed.

Candyman (1992, Bernard Rose): 37

See, I skipped this in first-run because I'd already been burned twice by Rose—Paperhouse in particular being a textbook case of narrative incoherence defeating conceptual promise. And sure enough, Candyman tosses urban legend, racial hostility/condescension, encroaching madness, Clive Barker's obsession with pain-as-ecstasy, and various other elements into a shock-cut gumbo that makes no damn sense whatsoever. What's more, that fuzziness actually works against the film's effectiveness as horror, rather than for it—there's a reason kids don't sit around the campfire whispering "and if you say his name five times, somebody else will get viciously murdered and the police will have every reason to think you did it...and maybe you did!" Some cut-rate Mr. Señor Love Daddy with bees buzzing inside his guts doesn't get me shivering, and I'm damned if I can work out what Candyman's origin as a lynching victim of sorts has to do with the heroine's gradual metamorphosis into an avenging paranormal figure (completely unrelated to urban legend; Xander Berkeley isn't deliberately summoning her in the final scene), or what either has to do with the notion of bogeymen as modern-day gods in need of worshippers (an intriguing idea that's merely pronounced in echo-treated voiceover, never actually explored). It's more overtly thoughtful and ambitious than the average horror movie, certainly, but that doesn't make it smart; far better to focus on actually horrifying and let the sociological subtext take care of itself.

/Amadeus/ (1984, Milos Forman): 69

Not bad as Best Picture winners go—apart from Rain Man, for which I have a perhaps unaccountable soft spot, this is probably my favorite from the '80s. (Need to see Terms of Endearment again, but I'd be surprised.) Frustrated mediocrity's clash with vulgar genius makes for an inherently compelling subject, and Abraham sinks his teeth into the pointedly non-title role, keeping it a little reptilian in the flashback scenes in order to heighten the rapture he conveys when describing Mozart's music to the priest—he even manages not to be upstaged by his old-age makeup, which is exceedingly rare. (Hulce is sporadically good too, but leans way too hard on the obscene giggle.) Strong location work, refreshing absence of period stuffiness, sharp supporting turns by Jeffrey Jones and Elizabeth Berridge, one tour de force (dictating K.626), score doesn't suck. But the gulf between Mozart and Salieri has been dumbed down so much that the latter's anguish isn't nearly as powerful as it should be. I don't overly mind that Shaffer has Mozart hold Salieri's work in contempt, contrary to historical record—that at least allows for memorable flourishes both visual (Salieri unmoved by a thunderous ovation, desirous only of Mozart's approval) and verbal (best pseudo-compliment ever: "One hears such sounds and what can one say but...Salieri!"). But there's a difference between mediocre and feeble. Depicting Mozart's gift by stripping some of Figaro down to bare bones, assigning the kindergarten version to Salieri, and then letting Mozart rebuild it impromptu...I mean, come on. That's like making the case for Shakespeare by having him rewrite a rival's speech that begins "So, should I kill myself or not? I can kind of see both sides." It only cheapens an otherwise arresting portrait of unendurable envy.


Nictate said...

Interesting you found Cusack to be one of the better pseudo-Woody characters, since you once commented that Cusack's energy as an actor runs the exact opposite of Woody's. Opposing forces became the right fit. I need to watch BULLETS again. It's been at least a decade, but I still remember "Don't speak."

Wynyard said...

I spy a lot of Brakhage being eyeballed yet "No comment". We talking short film as bastard son here? Caught INT. TRAILER. NIGHT. recently and am seriously considering it Jim's top since Mystery Train.

md'a said...

Yeah, I don't rate or review shorts. Don't really have a vocabulary for them; it'd be like me trying to review music.