Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The Big Pretentious Movie Summer (11-15)

12 Angry Men dir. Sidney Lumet (1957)
An interesting exercise in cinematic structure. It examines 12 jurors (all men, you guessed it) who are presiding over a murder trial that involves a slum kid allegedly stabbing his father to death. The facts seem irrefutable and the group is all but ready to submit a "guilty" verdict, if not for one relentless juror (Henry Fonda) who insists that there's reasonable doubt. As the "evidence" is observed, piece by piece, it all starts to crumble under a microscope. Knowing the story of this classic film going in, I found myself expecting facile examinations of racism and prejudice and how they play a roll in the justice system. Even by today's standards, it's much more nuanced and shaded than most films that deal in any way with the subject of racial disparity. Henry Fonda is halo gets a little too shiny, as he plays up the role of the good liberal with great verve. Lee J. Cobb can practically be seen twiddling his mustache as he plays the angry "lock them all up and throw away the key" juror who is ardently the last one to change his vote to "innocent." And he does so with a display of angry tears that's a But two winning performances, nonetheless and a winning ensemble. A very impressive debut by veteran Sidney Lumet.
Grade: B+

Monsters Inc. dir. Pete Docter (2001)
An remarkably inventive concept (half the battle) executed well, with very few missteps. It's also very nicely observed and realized in terms of the Monstropolis universe the filmmakers have created and the rules carried therein. I've always greatly appreciated that Pixar has never fallen prey to the "precocious kids are funny" trap. Boo is believable, fully formed, and (gasp!) very funny. Her relationship with Sulley (perfectly voiced by John Goodman) is sweet without being saccharine. In fact, all of the emotional beats in this film feel hard earned and contextually valid, which is not always the case with animated films (or films in general). I can take or leave Billy Crystal--yes that is a blanket statement--and I usually choose the latter, but his voice actually Mike's character. And many extra points for Jennifer Tilly.
Grade: A-

dir. Martin Scorsese (1990)
I really and truly wish that Ridley Scott would take a few notes from Martin Scorsese (be with me for a moment). It can be argued that both directors, in their own way, continue to make the same film. They explore the same tropes of hardened, sometimes nonsensical masculinity, peripherality of women (with a few exceptions from both directors) and a subsequent release of intensely repressed sexual energy in ways that are often anything but. Why should Scott then take notes from Scorsese? Because Ridley Scott has fallen into a sort of stupor of late, head resting all-too comfortably between the legs of Russell Crowe, fawning over the Aussie's dour smolder while they feed each other's worst artistic impulses. At least Scorsese (from Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull all the way up to The Departed) continues to make it interesting and watchable. I took note of this while watching Goodfellas, which falls just short of the brilliance of Raging Bull, but is still understandably and justifiably a fantastically accomplished and iconic film in its own right. Ray Liotta is too old for the part, yet his performance never makes you doubt that he is perfectly cast as gangster Henry Hill. Scorsese takes what could have been standard mob fare and (once again) makes it intensely personal and intimate. As his wife, Karen, Lorraine Bracco joins Cathy Moriarty in the pantheon of great supporting performances directed by Scorsese. In fact, I think I enjoyed Bracco just a hair more. Her character is richer, more vibrant and is given more gradient. I love that she shares the narration with Liotta, offering insight into the women Karen must associate with after marrying Henry. Her observations are spot-on, and what's even more spot-on is how gradually (though maybe not so) Karen becomes what she herself once reviled. I also enjoyed seeing a woman in a Scorsese movie who's in on the grift. The rest of the cast is serviceable too, even if they aren't given much to do. I mentioned in my write-up of Raging Bull that there is a disconnect where myself and Joe Pesci are concerned. He's fine here, often funny and plucky in an "Emmy for Outstanding Guest Actor in a Comedy Series" kind of way. But I just don't see any variation between this, Raging Bull, even Home Alone, hell...even when he presented Mercedes Ruehl with her Oscar. He's always, very much...Joe. Even Robert De Niro, who is often accused (wrongly so) of being similarly one-note and admittedly serves a mild window-dressing purpose here is doing something more interesting than Pesci. But, I am biased towards De Niro (both here and in general). I'm watching Casino this week, so maybe I'll be surprised by Pesci, but viewing the trailer and listening to secondhand reports from film gourmands whom I trust are telling me not to hold my breath. At any rate, I enjoyed this film immensely. It's shaking me to my core that so many of these canonized Scorsese films are living up to, if not exceeding the reputation that precedes them. Breathtaking.
Grade: A-

The Age of Innocence dir. Martin Scorsese (1993)
A conversation I had with a friend regarding this film went a little something like this:

Me: I'm watching The Age of Innocence tonight.
Friend: Oh. James Ivory directed that, right?
Me: No, Martin Scorsese.
Friend: Really? I could have sworn it was James Ivory.
Me: That's understandable, really. But it was Scorsese.
Friend: What year did The Remains of the Day come out?
Me: 1993. I think.
Friend: Age of Innocence was...
Me: Also 1993.
Friend: So, James Ivory directed both of them in the same year? Wow.
Me: No. SCORSESE directed The Age of Innocence.
Friend: Really? Seems strange...

Yes. Peculiar that at what is arguably the height of the Merchant-Ivory years, that The Age of Innocence, an adaptation of Edith Wharton's novel of the same name and a project tailor-made for Ivory was directed by Martin Scorsese. I had never considered James Ivory until this conversation. Mostly because, despite its failings (The Age of Innocence is far from a perfect film), I'm not at all convinced that Scorsese was the wrong man for the job. On the surface, it's a departure for him--a somewhat stuffy period piece about forbidden lovers who want to desperately consummate their love, then (after nearly 140 minutes) guess what? They don't. I found myself engaged by The Age of Innocence, nonetheless. I like it, fully aware of its flaws (Joanne Woodward's ponderous narration stands out as tall as some of May Welland's hats). In many ways, it can be said that this film examines many themes that Scorsese has examined in his other work. Newland Archer (Daniel Day-Lewis), while far from the typical Scorsese protagonist is unable to view women other in anything but very polarizing terms. There's the problem: his simple wife, May (Winona Ryder) and the solution: the perfect, modern, cosmopolitan and recently scandalized Countess Ellen Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer). Isn't this a problem that many Scorsese heroes and antiheroes often face? Don't they often see their women as either whores on one end, or Madonnas on the other, with little room for shading in between? The difference here being, of course that Newland is excited by the "whore" and bored to tears by the "Madonna." A rather interesting reversal, if you ask me and one that had me very intrigued. And, for as cold and unfeeling as the movie is often accused of being, that scene in the carriage between Daniel Day-Lewis and Michelle Pfeiffer was anything but. I will talk last of Winona Ryder. Her Oscar-nominated performance in this film is either brilliant or dreadful, depending on who you talk to. As I watched the film, I was leaning towards the latter until her very last scene in which I realized that Winona Ryder understood May Welland to the core. It's a brilliant reversal in which we are shown how expertly, how calculatedly May has protected her own interests. She earns her laurels here. The film does suffer from somewhat of a molasses pace, particularly in its shaggy final act, but it's an impressive film worth reconsidering from those who may have written it off years ago.
Grade: B

Eraserhead dir. David Lynch (1977)
Commence overbloated explanation for why I loved this surrealist I say this because, while I found David Lynch's startling and disturbing debut to be absolutely brilliant, it's not a film that I will necessarily defend (hear me out). I gathered my own connotations. Someone may watch this film and its collection of images, non-diegetic (and disturbing) soundtrack and its barely there narrative and see nothingness and far be it for me to look down my nose at someone for this. Let me talk about this film in terms of Salò or the 120 Days of Sodom, discussed in an earlier entry. That film derives its taboo nature by showing transgressions involving sexual sadism, feces and murder (things we, as a society, already know to be taboo and transgressive). Eraserhead attacks something inevitable and seemingly simple--childbirth. It dares, in its own subversive way, to actually mine the thoughts and emotions entailed in the question "What if you conceived and had offspring which you subsequently did not want?" In my mind, the horrific result in this film only serves as a very extrapolated worst-case scenario of a situation that many people (be they new parents, old parents, or childless) consider, but never talk about. There may be nothing more taboo in our culture than to not want your child. In addition to being deeply chilling, Eraserhead is incredibly heartbreaking and achingly telling. Particularly its conclusion, which shows us how plainly, how unfairly and how stupidly there are no easy answers.
Grade: A-

15 films down. 140 to go.

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