Thursday, July 22, 2010

The Big Pretentious Movie Summer (31-35)

The Aviator dir. Martin Scorsese (2004)
A fine film, entertaining, epic in scope and enthralling. Its technical splendor and immersion into period make it hard to attack any of the formal mechanics. It's spectacularly well-made, though it is difficult to get really passionate about it six years after my initial viewing. I'm really glad that Martin Scorsese didn't win his long awaited Oscar for this film, and not only because Million Dollar Baby is a superb and superior film that has aged surprisingly well (know that getting me to admit this about a Clint Eastwood movie is no easy feat). It doesn't feel like a Scorsese film, and I'm not just saying that simply because of the generic departure (The Age of Innocence is certainly an anomaly for Scorsese on paper, but I could still see him in it very much). The Aviator lacks a certain intimacy and character familiarity that have come to be the hallmark of even Scorsese's grandest expeditions. Screenwriter John Logan (the man who brought us more wanting fare such as Gladiator and The Last Samurai) surely shares the blame for that. Although the performances here are good (and Scorsese's direction certainly elevates Logan's paint-by-numbers approach to Howard Hughes's life), I never felt like I learned much more about these characters other than what's pertinent to events in any given scene. Leonardo DiCaprio's performance is technically accomplished, if a little obvious in certain places. While he doesn't layer back story very interestingly, he sells the accent and the externalities very convincingly. He was physically much too green and baby-faced at the time to play Howard Hughes (I'd be curious to see how today's more hardened and grizzled DiCaprio would handle the role). Cate Blanchett is superb, knowing that she's much to distinctive looking to physically sell Katharine Hepburn and instead playing her own version of the screen icon. It's a polished, unfussy turn worthy of the many accolades thrown its way. Kate Beckinsale's Ava Gardner is serviceable (it seems like that's the best she can ever claim), though I can't help but wonder what a more seasoned performer could have brought to the admittedly thin role. I don't even categorically dislike Beckinsale, but she's an actress whose consistent employability over the last decade or so continues to confuse me, both commercially (has she ever headlined a true "hit"?) and artistically (she's in a competitive enough age bracket for Hollywood actresses that with each role she lands, I wonder why it didn't go to one of the other dozen or so working actresses who physically fit the bill and are more skilled). I've heard several people carry on about the length, which was not a problem for me during either of my two viewings. The structure of the story seems impeccable and Scorsese's stylistic choices (the big one being the use of color and how it changes as the film progresses) seem to complement it well. I just wish there had been more feeling and less grandeur, though I suppose Hughes would have approved of the rather cold and antiseptic treatment his life is given here.
Grade: B

Rosemary's Baby dir. Roman Polanski (1968)
This write-up is sure to border on effusive, but yes! Yes! Yes! This is my second viewing of this film and it is hasn't lost an ounce of its creepiness and evocative nature. It's always refreshing to see a genre film made into high art simply by how well-made it is--a seemingly simple notion, but maybe not when you consider how many genre films seem to forget. I wonder if Mia Farrow, in her prime, was regarded much in the same way present-day movie-going consciousness regards Tilda Swinton: talented, distantly and unconventionally lovely, shrewdly selective when it comes to projects, hard to place and radiating other-worldly class and intelligence. It seems like an apt comparison. Farrow is amazing here, never too shrill or mannered. The now iconic look of shock and horror on her face in the film's chilling final scene is a communicative screen acting at its best. Ruth Gordon is fun and memorable (though admittedly that Oscar was a bit of a stretch) in her turn as the creepy neighbor, playing on the universal often unspoken fear that our neighbors aren't what they seem and commit strange and unspeakable acts behind closed doors. An intelligent and often frightening film that wisely never once shows us what it is we're dreading, an oft repeated technique in horror films since with varying degrees of effectiveness ranging from smart appropriation (The Blair Witch Project) to massive miscalculation (Paranormal Activity).
Grade: A-

Naked dir. Mike Leigh (1993)
Very appropriately titled, as Mike Leigh has never made more outwardly shocking a film. It very daringly digs into the ethos of a man named Johnny (an excellent David Thewlis), whose journey we follow. That the film opens with Johnny committing a rape in Manchester and then follows his journey to London as he encounters ex-girlfriend Louise (Lesley Sharpe) and espouses his nihilistic world views for anyone who will listen. Even by Mike Leigh's standards, Naked isn't large with the external plot. The film is very character-based, but it's also rather heavy (necessarily so). Like all Mike Leigh films, improvisational dialogue is clearly employed. The verisimilitude achieved through this method, married with the frank, violent and often lengthy scenes of sexual assault make for an arresting experience. I love that the film only suggests that Johnny's proclivities may be the result of some unknown ailment(s) or disorder(s), be it mental or physical, without absolving him of guilt for his actions. The way Johnny is juxtaposed with Louise and Sophie's sexual sadist of a landlord could have also served to engender misplaced feelings of admiration for Johnny by comparison, but Mike Leigh never works in simple extremes. I appreciate that Dick Pope's cinematography doesn't keep a stark distance between the viewer and Johnny's crime at the beginning of the film, forcing us to confront what he has done. However, the film refuses to fall into gradient-free notions of "Johnny is bad because of this," "These characters are good because of this." Mike Leigh characters are always fascinating creatures. They're so rarely ever just one thing at any given time, and they are so complexly principled. Louise is weary of Johnny, but she still cares for him. Her muted reaction to Johnny seducing her flatmate Sophie (Katrin Cartlidge) is preferable to what could have been a bigger moment (outwardly). This behavior doesn't shock Louise. Mike Leigh and his actors seem to know that being dismayed is different and much worse than being shocked and dismayed, for it means that you never expected anything better in the first place. And what of their principles? They have them, certainly. But I don't think there's more telling a moment in this film than the conversation Louise and Sophie have about abortion. There are no false notes, no missteps. You believe everything these people say and do. I was supposed to watch Life is Sweet and Topsy-Turvy, both unavailable on Netflix and at the AFI library (isn't that sad?). I instead grabbed the Criterion Collection version of Naked and I'm intensely glad I did. What a fortuitous turn of events.
Grade: A-

L'Avventura dir. Michelangelo Antonioni (1960)
I found myself intrigued, rather than truly engaged, feeling deep admiration, rather than true swept-up passion. Monica Vitti, who plays Claudia (here's a deep comment for you) has one of those otherworldly faces that seems adept at expressing the director's ideas without being obtuse or overly fussy. She immediately brings to mind what I love so much about actresses like Tilda Swinton, Helena Bonham Carter, Samantha Morton and Cate Blanchett. Though of my two Antonioni forays, I much more enjoyed L'Eclisse (in which Vitti also stars), I prefer Vitti's performance here. She's conflicted about the scenario--how subsequently takes up with her friend Anna's (Lea Massari) lover Sandro (Gabriel Ferzetti) mere days after Anna disappears without a trace (that's the loose plot, though to say that this is what the film is "about" would be reductive). Vitti's eyes suggest that she's a very cerebral actress, and yet we never see the wheels turning. I never caught her telegraphing Claudia's next move. As stated earlier, I was conceptually intrigued by the film. Not only does Antonioni not solve the issue of Anna's disappearance, but he makes a point of making it a non-issue in the latter half of the film. Outside of the singular elements of Vitti's performance, I can't say that L'Avventura is truly lingering in my mind as more than a collection of incredibly lovely, often arresting images. Aldo Scavarda's cinematography captures the grandeur of the vacation spot where Anna disappears and contrasts it well with Claudia's more mundane home life. I just wish there had been more here. Like Claudia, I found myself tentatively experiencing the events in this film. It was often pleasurable, often exciting, but ultimately not totally satisfying.
Grade: B

Leaving Las Vegas dir. Mike Figgis (1995)
And so we end this post much as we did the last one--with a film containing a 1995 best actress nominee (the other being Casino). Both take place largely in Las Vegas. Both contain male antiheroes who are met with feminized versions of what they need (or think they need). And...the comparisons between Leaving Las Vegas and Casino pretty much end there, even if you're being overly harsh and overly generous, respectively. Something about coming right off of Casino and watching this after listening to a classmate discuss the virtues of Crazy Heart had me steeling myself for how unremarkable I thought this film was going to be (an aside: seriously?! She called it the best film of 2009. If you think Crazy Heart is the best film of 2009, tell me what are the other six films you watched last year). I couldn't have been more wrong about Leaving Las Vegas. What a beautiful, strange film this is, with its own visual language. It tells the story of an alcoholic Hollywood agent named Ben (Nicolas Cage) who hit rock bottom about five exits back. His drunken tailspin lands him in Las Vegas where he meets a prostitute named Sera (a radiant Elisabeth Shue). A connection is formed. Very little is said. This isn't about how Sera teaches Ben to overcome the perils of alcohol, nor does he help her to discover the beauty of her commodified, male-projected womanly self-worth (was that cynical? It felt cynical). They happen to meet, while he's on his way down and while she's remaining relatively lateral. A brief exchange between Ben and Sera contains the two most important lines of dialogue. The first is Ben's: "You can never, never ask me to stop drinking. Do you understand?" The second is Sera's: "I do. I really do." Stories like this often lend themselves to the most trite, ordinary of filmmaking, both narratively and stylistically. In both cases, director Mike Figgis avoids the path of least resistance. There are a lot of playful cinematic experiments here: the cutaways to interviews where the characters divulge large pieces of information), the use of 16mm film to shoot the film (incidentally, how fucking awesome was Declan Quinn's cinematography here? Between this and Rachel Getting Married I kind of want to rent everything he's ever shot). And the two leading performances are absolutely searing. Elisabeth Shue gifts the film with a stripped-down, bare bones and natural performance. She avoids the cliches, both of the archetype (hooker with a heart of gold) and of the "big moments" in her scenes. The infamous shower scene, for instance, immediately comes to mind as an example of Shue exercising restraint where another actress (I'm not naming any names) would have chewed the scenery. I fought tears throughout this movie and it has just refused to let go.
Grade: A-

35 films down, 120 to go

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