Saturday, June 12, 2010

The Big Pretentious Movie Summer (1-5)

I'm going to do a write up of the films I've watched in groups of 5. Off to a bit of a slow start this week (only 6 films watched), but there's going to be some heavy lifting this weekend.

Days of Heaven dir. Terrence Malick (1978)
Purely visual, resplendent storytelling at its finest. The story is so simple (the best ones often are). A man during the Great Depression (Richard Gere) flees with his lover and his younger sister after he murders his boss. To keep cover, he pretends that his lover is his sister and a rich prospector falls in love with her. As you can guess, this creates a problem after his lover marries the prospector, who notices that her relationship with her "brother" is anything but ordinary. And really, that's scarcely what the film is about (if it is indeed "about" one thing or the other). The film is narrated, hauntingly and effectively by Linda Manz whose almost androgynous voice contribute greatly to the film's greatly lyrical atmosphere. I can't recall Richard Gere being as potent (before or since). There's more to say about this film, certainly. Long, verbose discourse, be it academic, theoretical or critical, can be/has been written about Malick at length and surely with more acumen and shrewdness than I can muster. All I know is that Malick's debut Badlands intrigued, fascinated and delighted me. Days of Heaven haunted me for days after I saw it, the images never letting go, the way the land feels and smells like a firsthand experience and the horrifying sight of locusts and fire burning bright in my memory.
Grade: A-

Salò or the 120 Days of Sodom dir. Pier Paolo Passolini (1975)
I watched this film per an acquaintance's recommendation (insistence, actually). He called it brilliant, transgressive and "one of the best films [he has] ever seen." This is an acquaintance whose opinion I trust and value. Salò or the 120 Days of Sodom is certainly transgressive, no matter what personal definition one assigns to the word. I can guarantee that whatever taboos make your skin crawl (sexual, violent, scatological), there's something for everyone. But to call it brilliant...I'm sorry. I'm just not there. The film centers around a group of fascists in Mussolini's Italy in the 1940s who kidnap 18 Italian youths (9 boys and 9 girls) and subject them to 120 days of sexual, mental and unimaginable physical torture. I don't want to write off this film entirely. Specific scenes and ideas presented here are certainly not without merit. For instance, the final scene in which the teenagers are executed (some by scalping, others by having their tongues cut out, do I really need to go on?) is viewed through the binoculars of the fascist spectators. This is (presumably) to put us in their gaze, the implication being that there's a little sadist in all of us, even if we commit our sins from a safe distance. Fine. Not the most groundbreaking of hypothesis, and the long shots at the end are a tad on the nose for my taste, but it's interesting nonetheless. However, nothing that proceeds this (the banquet in which they are served large trays of feces, the scene in which a girl is forced to eat polenta embedded with nails) consistently speaks to this juxtaposition of fascism and sadism in any way that isn't painfully, almost desperately obvious. I can see the intellectual lure of the film. It was banned for the longest time in several countries, including the US and is still banned in many places. Michael Haneke (who is a great filmmaker in his own right) has often cited this as one of his favorites. And isn't transgression always a bit seductive, especially when it comes in the form of an Italian film from the 1970s made by a semi-obscure director who met his demise at the strangling hands of a male prostitute (stay with me)? I was captivated during many stretches of this film, certainly, but I would have to say that it falls short of brilliance and by a significant measure. Not to say that obtuse transgression isn't, in its own way, a valuable part of culture. There will always be those who need their cinematic controversy spoon fed to them. If one must indulge, it is a far more stimulating experience to spend time with Pasolini than to keep Eli Roth knee deep in hookers and coke by watching Hostel II. The only reason this film is a B- and not a C+ is because it legitimately provoked visceral reactions out of me. And I actually screamed quite loudly when I read the chapter title "Circle of Shit."
Grade: B-(downgraded to a C+ in retrospect.)

Breakfast at Tiffany's dir. Blake Edwards (1961)
I am not really well-versed in the world of Audrey Hepburn. I haven't had a lot of forays. Having now seen Breakfast at Tiffany's, I can say that I honestly understand the comparisons that were made between Audrey Hepburn and Carey Mulligan when An Education was released last year. In both cases, you have have beautiful actresses giving charming, winning performances in films that are as light and airy as a prawn cracker, with about half the nutritional value. The film is so winsome, it feels almost disposable outside of Hepburn's accomplished, if highly overpraised performance. And like the slapped together, all-too convenient third act of An Education, the ending of Breakfast at Tiffany's left a bad taste in my mouth. I feel like where this film ends, Alfred Hitchcock's Marnie begins. Girlfriend sang the hell out of "Moon River," though. I will give her that. But what the hell was up with Mickey Rooney's pidgeon speaking Asian-faced neighbor? I understand that it was a different time, and certain presentations of racism were more acceptable. But this character was completely and totally apropos to nothing in the film. Puzzling.
Grade: C+

The Thin Red Line dir. Terrence Malick (1998)
When discussing the 1998 Oscar race, people generally talk about two things: 1. Shakespeare in Love winning best picture and 2. The fact that Saving Private Ryan should have won best picture. And of course there are those few defenders who think that Shakespeare's win was justified. These are generally the schools of thought, unless you were way more into Elizabeth or Life is Beautiful than I was, which is, in both cases, totally beyond my realm of understanding. Well, both camps are wrong actually and by a pretty wide margin. The Thin Red Line actually comes out head and shoulders above both of them. Malick has made four films, including this one. Each one is superbly constructed, economically told and visually spectacular. This is his masterpiece. His sprawling narrative that tells the story of the Guadalcanal Campaign is, like most Terrence Malick movies, not only about what it seems to be about. The film is without a protagonist and moves fluidly and seamlessly from one point of view to the other, all the while employing two(!) semi-omniscient narrators. Attempting to effectively break this many narrative conventions can lead to cinematic disaster, even when guided by the steadiest hand. Malick makes it work brilliantly, creating yet another lyric poem with war as a jarring, necessary backdrop. I can't even be bitter that it didn't win best picture. Even nominating The Thin Red Line was one of the shrewdest moves on the part of the Academy and is probably (and sadly) as good as they get.
Grade: A

The New World dir. Terrence Malick (2005)
Can we just go out on a limb and make this post a Terrence Malick love-in? The New World faced an uphill battle where I was concerned. Firstly, I wondered how the subject of the first meeting between First Nations people and the British in the 1600s would be handled. There were only so many ways to go. Most obvious was the NPR, textbook liberal agenda approach, which, while adorably well-intentioned, would have bored the shit out of me. I'm sure it bored Terrence Malick too, because he took it in another direction entirely and decides to treat the people on both sides of the divide like (wait for it) human beings, with shading, imperfections and personalities (take note, Paul Haggis, who's too busy explaining minorities to themselves and patting himself on the back for it to get a clue). The issue of the racial divide is an obvious entrenched one, and one that Malick doesn't ignore. It is conveyed visually, through Emmanuel Lubezki's smart, expert cinematography. On a side note, can you believe Lubezki lost the Oscar to Memoirs of a Geisha--a film that looked like it borrowed the soundstage from Madonna's "Nothing Really Matters" video, yet only had half the budget to dress it? Q'orianka Kilcher gives a beautiful and bewitching debut performance as the unnamed woman (though we know her name) who saves John Smith (Colin Farrell). Kilcher was 14 at the time of filming. Farrell was 29. What a daring choice for Malick to not play it safe and fudge history by making Pocahontas older. His work with actors is unparalleled as the relationship between Smith and Pocahontas never feels unsavory or inappropriate, at least not in the context of this world. A beautiful film. Sweet, poetic, heartfelt and one of the best of the 2000s.
Grade: A-

5 films down. 150 films to go...

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