06 April 2012

Viewing Journal: Week of 2-8 Apr

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.

Here's my standard top-of-the-month reminder that if you read these entries on a regular basis, find them in any way valuable, want to ensure that I don't get discouraged and give up, you should throw me a few bucks (link's at the top of the main page)—whatever you think a month's worth of near-daily capsules is worth to you. The amount is unimportant. (I suggested as little as $2; $5-10 is more common.) Just let me know you give a damn.

/He Got Game/ (1998, Spike Lee): 50

Not as lame as I once thought, mostly because Spike's having such a good time formally—practicing moves he'd put to more stirring use a few years later in 25th Hour—and because Denzel gets to be kind of a dick, which always brings out the best in him. You can tell the film was made by someone genuinely in love with the game, which counts for a lot. Bonus points as well for the climactic one-on-one confrontation, which doesn't pretend there's any chance that a middle-aged amateur might best the country's #1 high-school prospect, whatever minor psychological advantage he might have as the kid's dad. Still, the script really is pretty terrible, especially when it comes to women: Mom's a dead saint, Lala's a conniving gold-digger (just thought you should know, nigga), Jovovich's hooker exists only to provide a mercy fuck in exchange for being saved from Generic Abusive Pimp #362, and the only other people onscreen who have breasts are constantly shoving them in Jesus' face as a promise of the carnal carnival awaiting him at their university. Ray Allen doesn't embarrass himself, but neither does he have the sort of presence that compensates for the lack of technical skill, and he's stuck playing a character whose angry nobility, ironically enough, recalls some of Denzel's least interesting early work (and pre-emptively echoes the part of Warrior I found most tiresome, viz. Tom Hardy's bottomless filial resentment). Give Spike credit for attempting to find an original angle on the sports movie, focusing on personal relationships and financial chicanery rather than some threadbare underdog championship narrative, but He Got Game lives up to its title only on-court, where Copland's music can transforms simple dunks into iconic assertions of American will.

Who's Got the Action? (1962, Daniel Mann): 47

Remember the I Love Lucy episode in which Ricky started betting too much on the horses, so Lucy concocted a typically harebrained scheme to redirect the money back home, talking Fred into telling Ricky he'd found a new, superior bookie and would happily place Ricky's bets through this imaginary fellow, except wouldn't you know it Ricky's losing streak turned into a winning streak and Lucy suddenly had to sell all the furniture and her jewelry and whatnot to pay off massive wagers at 17:1? It was a Very Special Episode: Dean Martin played Ricky as an amiable non-entity, while Lucille Ball, one of the world's great comediennes, was replaced by Lana Turner, who wouldn't recognize funny if...I dunno, if there were a decent joke at the end of this sentence for her to potentially recognize. Point is, this is horribly bloated sitcom fare, rescued from complete disaster by lively supporting turns from the likes of Eddie Albert, Nita Talbot, and the young Walter Matthau (whose bizarrely accented mobster relies on data from one of those room-size, beep-happy computers so prevalent in the '50s and early '60s). The movie's dead air right from the opening scene, which takes a gag-free eternity merely to establish that Dino's so consumed with the track that he pays no attention to his wife, yet somehow fails to clearly establish that Turner is his wife, to the point where it's confusing that the next scene finds them sharing a bedroom (but not a bed, of course). Still, as I've noted before, there's an odd comfort in being reminded now and then that harmless crap like When in Rome and The Bounty Hunter has been clogging movie screens since before most of us were born. When you stumble across a title like this one that you've never heard of, you can almost always rest assured that there's a good reason.

/Manhattan/ (1979, Woody Allen): 100

I don't understand how you make a film that looks like this and then go on to make 32 subsequent films (and counting) that look nothing like this. But then, neither do I understand how you achieve the perfect synthesis of your many gifts and somehow conclude that you totally whiffed, to the point where you beg the studio to destroy the negative. Each of the film's tricky balancing acts—between visual beauty and verbal dexterity, between wit and pathos, between the specific and the universal—couldn't be more sublimely realized; like most every masterpiece, it's a tiny, insular story that nonetheless embodies human folly at its most ubiquitous and grandiose. That Woody chooses to make this explicit, via the opening and closing montages and his use of Gershwin, ranks alongside Malick's creation flashback in the annals of justifiable artistic hubris. (In a way, the Hayden Planetarium scene gets there first.) But his true glory lies in getting every detail right as well, from Mariel Hemingway's achingly unaffected performance to the pools of light emanating from foyers along 76th St.—to say nothing of that 7 train pulling slowly into the station behind Yankee Stadium (in the Bronx, but oh well) as "Rhapsody in Blue" builds to its crescendo. I watched this time looking hard for anything I might consider a flaw, and the best I can manage is to note that the scene between Isaac and Yale near the end (where Woody's standing next to the early hominid skeleton) cuts back and forth so much, atypically, in shot/reverse-shot that their conversational rhythm gets interrupted by infinitesimal pauses creating in editing. As if anyone can even remember that a few minutes later, when Tracy insists that we have to have a little faith in people, inspiring the single greatest moment of Allen's career as an actor (as opposed to comedian): a range of emotions communicating just about every many-worlds possibility of where these two people are likely to be in six months. Breathtaking and heartbreaking—some days, this is my favorite film of all time.

/Madonna: Truth or Dare/ (1991, Alek Keshishian): 65

To say that I wasn't a big Madonna fan in 1991 would be an understatement—at the time, she seemed to me the epitome of soulless, machine-tooled superstardom, though I now feel predicably nostalgic for the days when chart-toppers had discernible personalities. (Plus I dislodged the stick from my collegiate ass and realized dance music can be fun.) Back then, Warren Beatty's amused contempt for the life-as-performance ethos echoed my thoughts perfectly. Now, I look at this beautifully photographed doc (more nostalgia) and see a fascinating young woman who's working her ass off while struggling to find the most potentially rewarding balance between candor and control, juxtaposed with impressively staged concert footage that revels in the stunning contrast between grainy 16mm b&w and lush 35mm color. She's playing to the camera, but that in itself is often revealing, and it's easy to identify the moments when her guard involuntarily goes down. (The visit to her mother's grave straddles the line between sincerity and artifice in a truly confounding way.) Had you asked me a month ago for my most vivid memory of the film, I would have cited Madonna politely brushing off her childhood friend, which I'd found utterly obnoxious and filed under Prima Donna; this time, it was abundantly clear that the friend's motives are straight out of Us Weekly (think of kids you played with at age five and haven't spoken to since—would you ask one to be your unborn child's godmother?), and I found myself admiring Madonna's graciousness in handling an awkward situation. Who knows, maybe 20 years from now I'll take a look at Justin Bieber: Never Say Never and be equally surprised. But I really doubt it.

/The English Patient/ (1996, Anthony Minghella): 57

Movie remains frustratingly lopsided in a way the book apparently is not—judging from the synopsis, Kip has been neutered to the point of near-irrelevance, functioning solely as a hirsute love interest for Binoche's unfailingly spunky nurse. Which is particularly unfortunate given that the North African flashbacks serve up the most unapologetically swoony and old-fashioned eye-fuck romance of the modern era. Some folks I know find Almásy's treason so unconscionable that it retroactively poisons that whole relationship, but there's a reason why his present-tense incarnation is extra-crispy—his actions are understood but by no means celebrated or condoned. Or maybe I'm just inclined to be forgiving because sexual chemistry as credibly palpable as that between Fiennes and Scott Thomas is so rare. Minghella's acute understanding of human nature is most evident here in Almásy's futile efforts to resist temptation, and Fiennes savvily plays the Count's hostility toward Katherine as genuine, as if he resents the power she has over him and hates her for embodying his inevitable betrayal. All that stuff is smokin' (except for the too-pointed Herodotus anecdote, which has no purpose save clumsy foreshadowing), which means it's a bit of a drag every time the movie returns to the Italian villa and its comparative non-entities. Strange that Minghella wound up receiving his greatest acclaim for this very uncharacteristic picture; while he handles the scale reasonably well, it's mostly small, intimate moments that connect. If you've read the book: Does Almásy tell Katherine "I just want you to know that I'm not missing you yet," and does she tenderly reply "You will" and then immediately bonk her head into a pole? 'Cause that's handled as dryly and fleetingly as one could possibly hope for.

Now, Forager (2012, Jason Cortlund & Julia Halperin): W/O

[Pedigree: Rotterdam; ND/NF.]

Nothing could be dumber than that title (for a fiction feature—might work for a doc, which I was shocked to discover this ain't), but the film strives mightily to live down to it all the same, contaminating its already precious milieu—neo-hippies who make a meager living finding and selling wild mushrooms—with possibly the single douchiest character I've ever seen, predictably portrayed by co-writer/-director Cortlund. (I knew it must be him simply because nobody else would ever cast someone that singularly unappealing.) Quickly creates a rift between its central couple, who seem to have nothing in common save their mutual love for fungi, and then sticks fast to the one we cannot stand; the fact that the movie clearly knows he's insufferable in no way helps.

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