Friday, June 25, 2010

The Big Pretentious Movie Summer (21-25)

Manhattan dir. Woody Allen (1979)
All of the elements for my enjoying Woody Allen's love letter to Manhattan are seemingly present. Woody Allen? I'm finding that I love him more often than not, and even when groupthink deems something of his to be lower tier, there's at least something interesting to be discovered. Great cast? Check. I've extolled Meryl Streep's praises time and again, so I won't be redundant. I'm learning that I actually do enjoy Diane Keaton, whose thesping I've frankly found to be a tad pedestrian on more than one occasion, her Oscar-winning performance in Annie Hall--one of the best of all time for the category--notwithstanding (I've still yet to see Reds). And Mariel Hemingway? No complaints. Who can forget that TBS original movie she was in where she plays the secret service agent tracking the President's kidnapped daughter (played my "Dawson's Creek alum Monica Keena) aptly titled First Daughter (and yes, there are two films featuring former Creek'ers called First Daughter). I really really REALLY digress. My second crack at Manhattan, I found that my feelings still fell just short of love. I know I shall be revisiting it soon. Manhattan feels draggier the second time out. It's ideas feel extremely protracted, beyond the requirements of the narrative and beyond what's even to be expected from a Woody Allen film. I also found myself wondering about performance. In a Woody Allen film, especially, it would seem that casting is key. He is a director who famously writes every idea, nuance and cadence into a performance and therefore needs an actor who's in step with that. Meryl Streep describes the schizophrenic experience of filming Kramer vs. Kramer and Manhattan simultaneously. Where Robert Benton and screen partner Dustin Hoffman really let her find her character and her scenes, Woody Allen would famously stop her if she missed half a beat. Watching Manhattan it's clear that sometimes, performances suffer under his guidance because of this. Even in superior Woody Allen films, such as the recently lauded Interiors, performers like Mary Beth Hurt stumble through line readings that could have been made better with some leeway for improvisations. The film is a love letter to New York and an oft beautiful and lyric one at that. But it wants to be sweeping and engrossing, where it is often specific to the point of being exclusive (which is more my problem than it is the film's). Allen's treatment of lesbianism in his films is a topic of interest, particularly here. Lesbianism, as told by Allen, is framed as either an inconvenience/oddity in relation to men (seen here with Streep who plays Allen's lesbian ex-wife) or as objects to titillate and perform (as in Vicky Cristina Barcelona). Jill (Streep) and her new partner seem so desperately and myopically the creation of male gaze, which, granted, is unavoidable given the circumstances. The relationship is so narratively constructed to be irksome for Isaac (Allen) that one wonders if Jill and her partner retreat to separate bedrooms once he is gone, no longer needing to keep up the ruse. It's a small, but very telling schema, and one embedded in much of Allen's work. I guess it's almost refreshingly innocent on some level that someone with Allen's level of intellect can hold such seemingly antiquated views. And it's not as though that thread runs throughout his treatment of women, full-stop. Woody Allen has always been adept at portraying successful, independent women (particularly Diane Keaton in this film) in ways that miraculously seem unforced and unencumbered by the sandbags of male guilt. It's infinitely preferable to Tyler Perry's Independent Black Successful Woman™, who still can't make it through one of his films without being saved by glistening, rippling, pectoral muscles. For that, I'll always be thankful for Allen, even when I'm underwhelmed.
Grade: B

Hannah and Her Sisters dir. Woody Allen (1986)

How I would have loved to live through the golden age of the Woody years, in which Hannah and Her Sisters can be found, smack in the middle. Some would argue he's going through a current renaissance of sorts. Even at my most generous (I love me some Match Point, am a staunch Vicky Cristina Barcelona apologist and am clearly the only person on the planet who enjoyed Whatever Works, even a little bit) I have to admit these films pale in comparison to his best work (among which is Hannah and Her Sisters). Hannah and Her Sisters is beautifully constructed, almost scene by scene. This is an honest portrayal of a year in the life of three sisters, Hannah (Mia Farrow), Lee (Barbara Hershey) and Holly (Dianne Wiest). What's almost miraculous about this film is that many formal "Allen" elements that often work against his films, even his best (ponderous narration, dry, upper-middle class intellectualism, verbosity and cut-aways within cut-aways) seem to be working in perfect symbiosis here. All of the performers hit exactly the right notes, particularly the eponymous sisters themselves. Barbara Hershey's turn is studied and more understated than her character's histrionics suggest, particularly during her breakdown in the semi-famous restaurant scene. She reigns herself in at all the right moments and knows how much of the scene hinges on not only what she doesn't say, but how she avoids saying it. Dianne Wiest radiates her character's flightiness with her frazzled, stochastic mannerisms, but she also layers it very interestingly. Wiest's Holly toes so many lines, whether she's being selfishly indignant, willfully inconsiderate or merely oblivious. It could have been so easily mishandled in the wrong hands, and (Oscar or no Oscar) I don't think that Wiest gets due credit for how much control she has over this character. Look how Wiest communicates Holly's surprise at the new role she's assumed in having to patronize her more successful sister Hannah, after she writes a hurtful (albeit, very good) screenplay mirroring her life. It's not something she's used to. The temerity in voice and action shows her grappling, both with her guilt and her relishing of finally having her sister emotionally hog-tied. Like Interiors it is a snapshot of three adult sisters and like Interiors it is one of the most mature, honest and beautiful films of Allen's filmography. I immediately wanted to start it over and watch it again. I loved this movie.
Grade: A-

Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown dir. Pedro
Almodóvar (1988)
Very entertaining. I have always admired Almodóvar's aesthetic, even if I am only now (shamefully) becoming more acquainted with his earlier work. If pressed, I have to admit a certain lack of...enthusiasm for this film, even a week after its initial viewing. I will say that, despite its failings to really burn bright in my mind as a rarefied work of cinematic genius, I appreciate how much Almodóvar really loves the women in his films. He gifts the craziness with aching humanity, as evidenced by Carmen Maura's justifiably lauded, more than the sum-of-its-part performance. Maura's Pepa is a teasingly specific, peculiar creature, anchored to the narrative by the actress's earnestness. However, very few singular elements come to mind in a very specific way (the spiked gazpacho being the exception--forgive my language, but what a fucking great plot device). I know a lot of people rank this as high-art, but I saw a very entertaining (as previously stated), very simple and frankly, rather slight (especially when held up against Almodóvar's filmography) portrayal of female hysteria.
Grade: B

Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! dir.
Pedro Almodóvar (1990)
Breathtaking and daring and one of Almodóvar's best (though I understand I'm clearly in the minority for thinking so). It evokes many conflicting emotions about the nature of sexual need, romantic love and how the two aren't necessarily mutually exclusive (a subject that our culture is rather reticent about, so hell bent we are on subverting the knowledge that people have sex and enjoy it, lest our children find out and cause the end of the world). So my write-up doesn't turn into a total love-in (I really loved this movie almost to the point of wanting to marry it), I'm going to address one qualm I had--if it's even a qualm. Ricky (Antonio Banderas) is the recently released patient from a mental institution who kidnaps and ties up the beautiful actress Marina (Victoria Abril). He plays the role charismatically and skillfully, never forgetting to layer the hysteria in an interesting way. My concern is not at all with Banderas's performance. But...doesn't it seem like a cop out to for Almodóvar to address this issue of Stockholm Syndrome gone awry using someone who looks like Antonio Banderas, circa 1990? I wonder if the film would have worked just as well (maybe better?) with a lead actor at the helm who (even if he's not your thing) doesn't exude virility and charm the way Banderas does. Far be it for me to rewrite Almodóvar's film for him, recasting it with some Spanish Steve Buscemi. But, when pushing the envelope, I really want films to earn the way they tap into their audience's most base, uncomfortable desires.
Grade: A-

All About My Mother dir. Pedro Almodóvar (1999)
It's strange that two of the films for which Almodóvar arguably garnered the most acclaim (Women on the Verge... and now All About My Mother) evoked comparatively tepid response from me when held up against films like Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! and Bad Education. I loved the two latter, though critical consensus and being told so by the many tell me that I apparently have bad taste for holding them in greater regard than the two former (Talk to Her and Volver are actually where I align with the critics regarding Almodóvar). I enjoyed All About My Mother, certainly. What I respect and appreciate so deeply about him is that even when my reaction lacks rabid intense passion (which, sadly is the case this time out) there are always formal elements and aesthetics to admire and marvel at that are more interesting and compelling than your average movie-going experience. Like Woody Allen's Manhattan, I spent a fair amount of time trying to convince myself that I loved a movie which I merely liked a whole lot. I love Cecilia Roth and Penelope Cruz's very different performances here. Cecilia Roth's fierce, intense leading work here drives the film and she often saves certain scenes from utter melodramatic milquetoast. If she were more notable, an Oscar nomination surely would have followed (it's not like Oscar ignored--the film won Best Foreign Language Film). Cruz is radiant as the young naive nun who knows more that she even ultimately indicates. The film ultimately feels overlong and gives a little bit more revolution than I would have liked to see/the film needs. But an enjoyable movie-watching experience nonetheless.
Grade: B

25 Films Down 130 to Go

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