Thursday, June 24, 2010

The Big Pretentious Movie Summer (16-20)

Easy Rider dir. Dennis Hopper (1969)
Is it cinematic blasphemy to admit that I did not love Easy Rider? Am I immediately segmented into the larger repressive state apparatus for not fawning over such a counter-cultural phenomenon? Whenever I encounter films, literature, etc. that portray white males as disaffected, deified figures, my defenses immediately go up. Catcher in the Rye, On the thanks. A combination of institutional brainwashing/survival tactics for getting by in a world that rests so much stock in racially and culturally biased canonization of art has begrudgingly forced me to recognize the merit. That Wyatt and Billy can hop on motorcycles and travel across the country is a notion those two characters have every right to have in this country, and who's to fault them? It's their birthright. But just as these white men, throwing off the shackles of the button-down, work-a-day world feel it prudent to rebel against ideals that run counter to their beliefs, I feel a certain quiet rebellion to their rebellion. It's not right or wrong. It simply isn't my experience. I don't share their enthusiasm, nor will I ever, nor can I ignore that within this movement of white male raging against the dominant culture (replete homophobia, racism, sexism, and any other isms you can think of) are semaphores for less overt, yet more insidious and quite possibly more entrenched variants of these repressive ideals. The handling of women in Easy Rider as ciphers for/extensions of greater male ideas sticks out at very odd angles. This is not my way of sticking it to Easy Rider, a film I certainly enjoyed more than the aforementioned riot act would indicate. I tried, as best as possible, to evaluate it on its own terms. Seemingly meandering (sometimes annoyingly purposefully so), Dennis Hopper created something very evocative. Its images are so full of feeling that one almost forgives the film's many flaws. Henry Fonda and Dennis Hopper alternately suffer from and are benefited by the material. They somehow each manage to eke out semi-realized characterizations, where the script and Hopper's own direction seems to want them to play composite ideas of counterculture. Jack Nicholson does give in to the material's insistence that he play an idea rather than a character, but he does so memorably. The sad fate of sweet drunkard George Hanson is still felt in the end, as are the fates of our main characters. I just wish we could have seen less of an abstraction and more of the concrete. I feel like Hopper gave us the thesis statement. Now I want the rest of the dissertation.
Grade: C+

Midnight Cowboy dir. John Schlessinger (1969)
While I did not love this film, I liked it a hell of a lot and it certainly swept me up. Midnight Cowboy is lively acted throughout, particularly by Dustin Hoffman. For this type of uncorked, unrestrained and (frankly) attention-seeking performance, my reaction usually ranges from indifference (Joe Pesci) to white hot "dear-God-why-is-this-performer-still-employed?" levels of rage (Renee Zellweger and sometimes Geoffrey Rush...but mostly Renee). I digress. Hoffman's Ratso Rizzo sidesteps all of these hurdles, because he manages to imbue the character with emotion, layering and shading. I like how Hoffman never forgets to make sure that we catch Rizzo contemplating his next move and his next spiel. The moments of silence are the most telling, though I gather I have bad taste for liking this performance. Jon Voight is alo accomplished, playing Joe Buck as alternately doe-eyed and ferociously intense. Regarding the film itself, it's refreshingly loose and undisciplined. It does follow traditional story beats, certainly, but it isn't as chained to them as you would expect from an Oscar best picture from the 1960s. I'm not sure if the Academy was high that year. And granted, when the chief competition is Anne of the Thousand Days and Hello Dolly! anything will look good by comparison. Even if I don't love the film it's at least heartwarming to know that the Academy once made such a refreshing, frisky and adventurous choice for best picture, the likes of which wouldn't be repeated until Annie Hall over Star Wars seven years later and then The Hurt Locker over Avatar decades later. It's easy to see why Midnight Cowboy is so acclaimed, even if my enthusiasm for it is just a notch below the rabble. Of everything acclaimed about this film, I guess the only thing I don't "get" is Sylvia Miles performance, which I found a little wanting. Perhaps I'm being unfair. Perhaps I went in expecting greatness from Ms. Miles because of the famous diva bitchfit she pulled when she lost the supporting actress Oscar to Goldie Hawn that year. But...besides some very good Judi Dench, Ruby Dee, blink-and-you'll-miss-it theatrics, am I missing something here?
Grade: B+

Toy Story
dir. John Lasseter (1995)
Am I so hopeless for having waited this long to watch Toy Story? I had a good childhood. I really did. With the (at the time of the viewing) impending third installment and mounting excitement surrounding it, I felt a little behind the conversation, having not seen any(!) of the Toy Story franchise. Despite the name of this blog, I am a curious creature who does often want to know what all the fuss is about. That being said, I felt somewhat...deflated. Not by Pixar's first big film out of the gate, which impressed more than I thought it would. Toy Story is a phenomenal film, but I'm going somewhere with this. I'm deflated by why I didn't see this film when I was a child. I was nine when it came out. Why didn't I see it? My parents certainly would have taken me. Had I already outgrown my state of childlike wonder at nine-years-old? But I was still playing with toys at nine. And I did see Pocahontas, which came out the same year. I'm sorry. This is a deep therapy moment for me and I've spent a lot of time trying to figure out exactly what happened. Even if you're made of stone, there are real flashes of brilliance in this film and a heck of a lot to love, certainly. Of all the sights and sounds to behold in this film (and they are beautiful, rest assured), Sid is the best creation of the movie. The sadistic little "toy-torturer" is written with such acute understanding of the oft inexplicable nature of a child's cruelty. The voice work here is superb. But the question still remains...why did I miss this as a tot? Curiouser and curiouser...
Grade: A-

Husbands and Wives dir. Woody Allen (1992)
This film is often overshadowed by the less than savory aspects of Woody Allen's personal life that arose upon its initial release. It's kind of a shame, really because this is really top drawer Woody Allen. While very funny, Husbands and Wives is also a very real meditation on the relativity of happiness, especially as it pertains to relationships. Gabe (Allen) and Judy (Mia Farrow) are happy, it would seem. But when their married best friends Jack (Sydney Pollack) and Sally (a fabulous Judy Davis) announce their separation, things go awry. I found myself deeply engaged and sucked in by this film. Particularly by how there are no easy answers. For instance, the film remains ambiguous as to whether the erosion of Gabe and Judy's marriage is a result of their own failings in light of their friends's separation, or if it's self-fulfilling prophecy. Judy Davis gives an amazing performance as Sally, who is caustic, juvenile, needy and giving, often all in a single scene. While on a date with a suitor (Neeson) following her separation, Sally is kissed, maybe just a little too aggressively. Watch the aplomb with which Judy Davis recoils and utters such neurotic lines like "Can we not move so fast? Metabolically, it's not my rhythm" (this may be one of my favorite lines ever uttered in cinema, by the way). Mia Farrow is very good as well, though I wish some attention had been given to Juliette Lewis, who plays the fawning student to Woody Allen's overblown professor perfectly. Not everything in this film works. It's shot in a faux-documentary, handheld style. This serves to heighten and enhance the emotional resonance of certain scenes (the opening scene, for instance, which is one long take and works beautifully). For other scenes, it has the exact opposite effect, undercutting the feelings and taking the wind out of the sails (the scene where Sally sees Jack and his new twenty-something girlfriend in the street, for instance). The film also contains cutaway interviews with the four essential characters and other outliers, but one wonders if the documentary conceit is even necessary, or (better question) if more proper consistency would make it seem necessary. Ultimately, the film is flawed, but deeply intelligent and authentic, much like what I imagine a good marriage to be.
Grade: B+

Interiors dir. Woody Allen (1978)
I understand where this movie frustrates people, especially those who are more acquainted with Allen's more comedic fare. Not to be reductive and imply that the criticisms for Interiors came only from those longing for the days of Annie Hall and Love and Death. They were varied and often founded. It's too intellectual, it's too verbose, etc. It's cold and stiff where it should be moving and involved. It's overstates its ideas where it should say little or nothing. I read all of these criticisms. However, I found Interiors to be deeply moving and real in its portrayal of how three very different adult sisters deal with the separation of their parents. Geraldine Page is amazing as the family's matriarch, Eve, an accomplished interior decorator with a penchant for emotional abuse. Page knows that one need not raise her voice when speaking to cut deep. Maureen Stapleton gives an incredible performance that's more than it seems as Pearl, the uncouthed "vulgarian" whom the family patriarch Arthur (E.G. Marshall) takes up with and subsequently remarries following the dissolution of the marriage. For as much as things are often overstated (which I contend is just their way--Allen has crafted a haunting and affecting tale of how the over-educated upper middle class handle crisis) there is so much in this film that is handled masterfully. The rule is always to "show don't tell." Woody Allen can't not tell, it would seem. It's simply not who he is. But he always makes sure to show, which is what makes this film so rich. There's a scene where the daughters Renata and Jo (Diane Keaton, Mary Beth Hurt) and their respective partners (Richard Jordan and Sam Waterston) share a meal with Arthur and Pearl, presumably after an evening at the theater. While discussing the play, Renata argues about abstractions versus reality. Insert Pearl's analysis, unfiltered by the family's usual need to one-up each other in terms of intelligence and wit. She says what she thinks, as reductive as it may seem. Is she wrong? Not exactly. But everything about the scene--the way Stapleton's hand gestures suggest that this conversation need not be as important as they are making it, the way Keaton sucks down her cigarette, trying to mask her contempt--it all tells us everything we need to know. This is a film that understands it's characters from the ground up, from the inside out. It's truthful, it's painful and it's ending can seem unsatisfying. It's also mature, well-observed and one of Woody Allen's best, quite possibly one of the best. I also remember reading somewhere that Mary Beth Hurt (in general, but particularly in this movie) was the basis for Miss Hoover on "The Simpsons."
Grade: A

20 films down...135 to go


Simon said...

Agree on Easy Rider. Excellent.

The Pretentious Know it All said...

I actually knew very little about Easy Rider going in...I love Dennis Hopper and I'd heard a lot of glowing praise from casual and diehard film watchers alike. So, despite what my review indicates, I actually really wanted to love it. But I just...I found it really flabby and overlong and there were so many stretches where I wasn't engaged. I wasn't "bored" persay (it's hardly a boring film) but I was definitely bored with the ideas it was presenting.