15 November 2011

Viewing Journal: Week of 14-20 Nov

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 Debt (2010, John Madden): 60
Fails almost completely as the sober examination of moral reckoning intended, but works surprisingly well as a straightforward espionage potboiler, to the point where I kinda got sucked into it against my will. (Every awards screener sent to me gets at least 10 courtesy minutes, no matter how hopeless its cause appears to be.) Madden still isn't much of a stylist (hadn't seen anything since Shakespeare in Love), but he stages the lengthy flashback's various setpieces with an effective nuts-and-bolts simplicity that feels pleasingly retro; the sequence at the disused train station, classically composed and edited for maximum tension, likely put me in the wrong frame of mind for Scorsese's CGI-vertiginous Hugo, which I happened to see the next day. And while it may well derive from the original Israeli version, the big plot twist's reveal, via what appears at first to be formal ineptitude, is inspired—first time I've tumbled to something by thinking "This is so excruciatingly pointless there has to be a reason f...OHHHHHH." Chastain admittedly seems a little wispy for a badass covert op (not to mention the young Helen Mirren), but nonetheless finally earns the hype in my eyes with an entirely reactive performance that somehow conveys enormous strength and determination primarily through fear and anxiety; her duets with Jesper Christensen as Mengele manqué, both before and after the abduction, are miniature epics of power conceded and seized. By the time the movie shifted back to the late '90s and went all self-righteous and soggy, it was much too late for me to bail.

Like Crazy (2011, Drake Doremus): 43Or Sundance Jury on Crack. Vaguely fragmented style aims for lyricism, but its true function, I suspect, is to ensure that Doremus can just skip past all the dramatic scenes that would expose his Idiot Plot (which by some reports is based on personal experience...but if that's true, and things went down as depicted here, he and his girlfriend were truly blithering idiots). I for one am dying to eavesdrop on the phone call Anna must have made to her parents to tell them she wasn't coming home after all, even though her mum had just got all in her face (telephonically speaking) the previous day reminding her what a disaster it would be if she overstayed her student visa. Instead, we get a cute rapid-fire still-frame montage of all the various positions and combinations of nightwear involved in the couple sharing the same bed for the summer, which montage also conveniently substitutes for the sexual chemistry we literally never see the tiniest inkling of. Then there's the conversation, also conveniently hopscotched, in which they announce to their respective families (Jacob still has a mom somewhere, right?) that they're now getting married, despite having had only sporadic contact for several years and being fresh out of respective serious relationships with other people, on the grounds that this will supposedly clear up the visa problem (but not until six months later), which means we never find out whether their stupidity is congenital or whether they were told in no uncertain terms that that's a retarded idea but went ahead with it anyway. Sadly, Doremus neglected to omit the scene in which Anna's new beau presents her with the deeply romantic gift of...a new chair, to hey just coincidentally replace the handmade chair Jacob made for her at college (a gesture that actually made sense). And he forgot not to cross-cut Jacob boning someone else with Anna boning someone else—a juxtaposition made even more head-slappingly obvious when the PATIENCE bracelet Jacob had given Anna somehow breaks (from the sheer force of New Guy's thrustin', I guess). Like (500) Days of Summer, Like Crazy strives to be harshly realistic about romance's capacity for disappointment and self-delusion, but it's even less tethered to anything remotely resembling actual human behavior, so its good intentions are entirely for naught. Felicity Jones makes a fetching Zooey U.K., though.

/The Big Lebowski/ (1998, Joel Coen): 64All the best moments are in the first hour. Everyone will have their exceptions (and I'll concede the "Just Dropped In" dream sequence), but I've seen this four times now and it always seems like one of the greatest comedies ever made until suddenly it doesn't anymore, right about the time the Dude's car gets stolen. Originally I thought that was because the narrative deliberately goes limp, but now that I have a sense, courtesy The Ladykillers and Intolerable Cruelty, of what weak-ass Coen Bros. comedy looks like, I can see a lot of it in Lebowski's weirdly bloated second half, which just plain runs out of creative steam. Granted, this is highly subjective—I've seen people roar at the whole "this is what happens when you fuck a stranger in the ass!" routine, which to me plays like a rejected scene from an Adam Sandler movie, and there are probably folks who are tickled by the nihilists and their sketch-comedy accents. But I start out convulsed and wind up at best mildly amused...and then completely flummoxed by Donnie's death, which just seems like a random curveball thrown out of sheer desperation. Might not seem like such a huge stumble were that first hour not a sustained cavalcade of laid-back madcap genius; some of the best bits aren't even jokes per se, just hilarious insights into the way people's minds work. (I'm thinking in particular of the way the Dude parrots whatever he's heard recently, regardless of whether it makes much sense in context: "This aggression will not stand, man"; "A young trophy wife, in the parlance of our times..."; "You mean coitus?") And if the Skandies has no other justification for its existence, we were in fact the only voting body in the world who correctly recognized Jeff Bridges as 1998's Best Actor—not since Elliott Gould in The Long Goodbye has anyone been so dazzlingly befuddled.

/The Fisher King/ (1991, Terry Gilliam): 54Starts out very DIE ROBIN WILLIAMS DIE!, equating severe mental illness with improvisational stand-up—even if he's performing the script verbatim, which I doubt, it just comes across as his usual shtick—and enabling Williams' most grotesque pleas for audience sympathy. (I'd also repressed for 20 years the memory of his squat hairy body prancing naked in Central Park.) Nor is Bridges, playing a shock jock, really able to compensate in the other direction, as Bruce Willis did so beautifully opposite Brad Pitt in Twelve Monkeys. And of course Gilliam is the very last person who's gonna be temperamentally inclined to tug the leash. Just when the movie threatens to become completely insufferable, though, Amanda Plummer shows up and somehow imposes her own controlled spaciness onto everybody else, even managing to calm Williams way down. The film's midsection is an improbably charming portrait of two spastics in love, so unfussy and sincere that those qualities bleed into the previously nondescript relationship between Jack and Anne, whose break-up scene is the most emotionally truthful few minutes of Gilliam's career. (Ruehl didn't deserve to beat Juliette Lewis in Cape Fear, but she's much more direct and less showbiz-brassy than I'd remembered. So demoralizing to check her filmography and realize her career effectively ended just two years later.) It doesn't last, and the whole third act—Perry's catatonia, Jack's backslide into tooldom, the Grail break-in—fizzles, mostly because Plummer and Ruehl are both absent until the final few minutes. But just as the lovely waltz sequence temporarily makes Grand Central seem magical, so too does everything surrounding Perry and Lydia's date transform The Fisher King, however briefly.

Carnage (2011, Roman Polanski): 39In which we discover why Albee didn't make both couples George and Martha. As smartly directed and capably acted as you'd expect, but the play itself is just wretched—the sort of gleefully scabrous chamber piece that delights in exposing its characters as ugly, self-absorbed assholes hiding beneath a thin veneer of civilized behavior. This sort of ping-pong hostility represents everything I dislike about contemporary theater; Reza makes it worse by calling attention to the situation's artificiality, repeatedly sending the visiting couple out the door and then engineering some unpersuasive reason why they'd turn around for further abuse. (I honestly couldn't tell whether this was meant as a postmodern wink to the audience or a sincere attempt at narrative plausibility. Either way, it failed.) Everything about Carnage felt surpassingly phony to me, in a way designed to flatter one's self-image rather than inspire productive discomfort—only a person with antisocial personality disorder would identify with these cartoon versions of flawed humanity (assuming that said person experienced an unprecedented spasm of empathy). Waltz has the juiciest role, by virtue of starting out pretty close to the openly contemptuous zone where all four end up, but it's Winslet who comes closest to escaping Reza's moralistic straitjacket, working with Polanski (who keeps minimizing her in the frame) to create one tiny pocket of soiled dignity. The film's finest moment has her quietly retching into a bucket on the far end of the couch as the others snipe back and forth in the foreground; I was right there with her in spirit.

Benda Bilili! (2010, Renaud Barret & Florent de la Tullaye): W/OThere might be a documentary about disabled street musicians I could get behind, but it'd be a lot less blatantly celebratory and up-with-people than this one, which actually opens with the filmmakers declaring love at first sight for the musicians and deciding to fund their first recording session. Got briefly interested when the kid who plays that single-string tin-can lute-thing joined the group, as he seemed almost maniacally creative, but then suddenly a fire broke out and the group disbanded and the kid went back home to another village and "one year later we tried again" and this is the inherent danger of just following folks around with a camera hoping a film will magically come together. Sometimes they do, but more often you wind up with a random hodgepodge of disconnected anecdotes. In this case I'm pretty sure I'd be happier with the album that resulted.

One-Eyed Jacks (1961, Marlon Brando): 69Title alludes to two-faced deceit, and there really are an exceptional number of casual lies tossed around in this cold-hearted Western, which shows unmistakable signs of having been gutted (although Brando must have approved the happy ending on some level, given that he's standing there speaking the lines). I can't really imagine it at five hours, given its elemental nature, but Brando was clearly striving for a tragic purposelessness from which the release version ultimately retreats—it's the same sort of tonal whiplash you get at the conclusion of L.A. Confidential (the movie), when the abrupt restoration of order seems contrary to everything that's previously occurred. Otherwise quite pungent, with enough signs of a controlling intelligence to make you wish that he'd directed more than one film; if he errs on the side of making Rio as taciturnly badass as possible whenever directly confronted, in an almost proto-Clint way, he also declines to make excuses for the dude's craven backstabbing, which turns almost literal (wrong weapon) at the film's deliberately sorry excuse for a climactic showdown. At the same time, though, One-Eyed Jacks frequently does deliver on a basic popcorn level, generating old-fashioned suspense from an attempt to reach a gun from a prison cell (only to find it unloaded) and providing Timothy Carey as a loudmouthed bully for Rio to beat the crap out of when the pace starts to flag. It's a film half-beholden to the traditional Westerns of the '40s and '50s that also half-anticipates the more nihilistic approach that would soon be embraced by Leone and Peckinpah—emphasis on the latter, obviously, since he was one of this film's original directors (along with Kubrick) and some claim that many of his contributions to the script survive. A compromised triumph, paving the way.


eugene n said...

Wasn't down with Like Crazy either, but disagree that it's implausible or particularly idiot-plot-y that she would overstay her visa in a fit of swoony romanticism. Yes, it was stupid, but that's kind of the point of the film, such as it is.

I found more problematic the fact that the characters never have a single conversation about anything, and nor do they appear to have anything in common beyond sharing the world's most anodyne enthusiasm for Paul Simon (IIRC). Not that we would really know, since they don't talk.

md'a said...

The issue isn't whether Anna would make that bad decision. That I can easily believe. It's whether her parents would let her make that bad decision. They didn't strike me as people who would just say "Oh, you want to stay? That's fine, dear." And it's not a hugely idiotic decision Anna can make without immediately telling them about it (unlike a multitude of other hugely idiotic decisions young people can make). There would have been some kind of major blowup; to ignore it completely and have her parents be totally cool and smiling the next time we see them is fundamentally dishonest.

Zack said...

The trailer alone for LIKE CRAZY has me wanting to shout at the screen in anger and disbelief. Having refused thus far to see the movie, I admittedly don't have a leg to stand on here, but... Two young, white, straight kids fall in love -- this is what we call a non-problem. I agree that getting married under the circumstances would be a bad choice, but it *is* a choice they have. But the thing is, you could make this movie about (1) a gay couple (e.g. it's infuriating that this movie exists when half of a legally married couple can be/is deported because of DOMA) or (2) a couple that meets after one of them is already in the country illegally (hard-working illegal falls in love, then gets caught), and it would suddenly become both plausible AND you wouldn't hate their fucking guts.