Thursday, December 29, 2011

Midnight In Paris (2010)

In the twenty-four years since my favorite Woody Allen film was released (Radio Days), it's been a mixed bag for Woody. There have been a few pleasant comedies (Manhattan Murder Mystery, Bullets Over Broadway), flawed, yet penetrating films (Crimes And Misdemeanors, Husbands And Wives), failed attempts at something new (Everyone Says I Love You, Match Point..a film I loathe), inconsequential fluff (Vicky Christina Barcelona), and flat-out pieces of shit (Small Time Crooks, Hollywood Ending). Even flashes of extreme unpleasantness (Celebrity, Deconstructing Harry), yet the unpleasantness in Harry is oddly intriguing. I cannot tell you the sense of relief and exhilaration I had while watching this, realizing things were working, then realizing Allen had finally got it right after all these years.

This stars Owen Wilson as a hack screenwriter and wanna-be novelist who travels to Paris with his shallow fiancee and his "ugly American" future in-laws. Having not been there since his college days, the city makes him remember the person he was then, and how unfulfilling his life is now. One night he drunkenly stumbles back to his hotel and has an encounter with Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. Soon he is returning to the same mystery spot every night where he is transported back to the Paris of the 1920s and rubbing elbows with long-dead giants of literature and art.

The broadly-sketched portrayals of Ernest Hemingway, Salvador Dali, Gertrude Stein, Luis Bunuel, etc. are delicious. And the evocation of the time period is dead-on...or a romanticized version of it, which is intentional and exactly what we, the audience, wants. Before seeing this, Allen's casting of Wilson in the lead was a head-scratcher, I've never liked him. However, now I think it was a very smart choice. Casting someone so different from Allen means there was no chance of getting a half-assed impression of Woody, something that often occurs with male leads acting as his stand-in (particularly Kenneth Branaugh in Celebrity). This film touches on an important point: that everyone has romantic notions of the past (including myself) and in doing so miss the beauty of the present. At one point, a character in this says: "The golden age is now." A statement so life-affirming it can make your head spin. Midnight In Paris knocks Manhattan out of my top-five favorite Woody Allen films. A marvelous, warm, and nearly flawless movie. His best in twenty-four years.

A Somewhat Gentle Man (2010)

Norwegian deadpan comedy directed by Hans Petter Moland and starring Stellan Skarsgard as a mob hitman recently paroled from prison after serving twelve years for murdering the man who screwed his then-wife. What really struck me about this was how economic it was. Some scenes seem to end right in the middle, Moland cuts to the next one where another director would let it play out. Save for the half dozen or so sex scenes, which (purposely) seem to last forever...this has some of the most unappetizing (and hilarious) sex scenes ever put in a film. There are nice details everywhere, for instance, one scene where Skarsgard and his old bosses go buy a gun illustrates how out-of-touch and irrelevant they've become; They are entering a neighborhood that twelve years ago used to be a rough one, and are surprised to see expensive cars parked everywhere. Just a small moment like Skarsgard noticing a few holes in the upholstery of his boss's Mercedes illustrates what another filmmaker would take pages of dialog to put across. Skarsgard has never been better. He conveys so much with his face and eyes, while actually doing very little. Come to think of it, the whole cast is excellent. A big little movie.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Daddy Longlegs (2010)

No, not the Fred Astaire musical of the same name, nor the Mary Pickford silent melodrama. This Daddy Longlegs is a grimy, muddled, and pretentious indie drama, written and directed by Benny and Josh Safdie, about a Brooklyn hipster father who has custody of his kids two weeks a year and makes the most of it. How? By sending his two sons, ages six and seven, unattended into the streets of New York on errands for him, drugging them (inducing a coma that lasts for days) so they'll sleep while he's hanging out with his Brooklyn hipster friends, and ultimately kidnapping them. And we, the audience, are supposed to find this guy endearing because he's "fun". The filmmaking is very "film school", and the plot goes nowhere. Essentially an untidy, John Cassavetes-style character study. With fugly actors, bad lighting, out-of-focus photography, and crappy sound (use a fucking mic muff!). I don't know why this is even called "Daddy Longlegs", the guy who plays the father is short! Lends credence to my belief that some people should be forcibly subjected to sterilization, then they won't have kids who might grow up and make movies like this.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Super 8 (2011)

A bunch of 13 year-olds are filming a homemade zombie movie when they unintentionally film a train crash. This train contained some sort of extra-terrestrial technology and the kids are soon being hounded by evil government officials.

After what seemed like the longest c.g.i. train crash in history, there are a few creepy scenes, one in particular at a gas station. Then the film starts to fizzle out and the mind (mine, at least) begins to wander. I started trying to guess which of the young actors was gay (the lead had a lisp that kept creeping out), I wondered if every member of the Fanning family can cry on cue, and I marveled at how they managed to find the ugliest child actor I've ever seen. This mouth breather's braces-clad teeth were so protruding, that if you squinted it looked as if he were wearing an aluminum foil mustache. This is good, but unlike director J.J. Abrams previous efforts (Cloverfield, Start Trek), it's not great. It seems producer Steven Spielberg may have played a larger role than mere producer, for this seems like a Spielberg movie, kind of E.T. meets The Goonies. Abrams shouldn't have deferred to the producer so much, there's a lot of Spielbergian sentimentality. Instead of Abrams on a good day, we get Spielberg on a bad day.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Hanna (2011)

After living most of her life hiding out in the arctic with her father (Eric Bana) a genetic experiment to create the perfect soldier (Saoirse Ronan) hits puberty, and decides to enter society and hunt down the government official (Cate Blanchett) who killed her mother. This is very, very, almost comically arty. Director Joe Wright refuses to let a single shot pass by on screen without some sort of pointless artistic festoonery. All this pretension for what is essentially a hollow and ridiculous action film with very little action. I'm not sure what Wright was aiming for here. Was he trying to validate the action flick by cramming production design into every inch of every frame? Perhaps if he focused more of his attention on fixing the moronic script and hiring a dialect coach (and better hairdresser) for Blanchett this would've been less laughable. When high-minded intentions are applied to pulp material, it can create a masterpiece (John Boorman's Point Blank, for example). But nothing can dress up this turd. Thirty years from now, this may, may become a cult film. The more likely scenario is that it'll be consigned to the bargain bin of camp.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

A Christmas Tale (2008)

French comedy/drama from director Arnaud Desplechin about a fractured and highly disfunctional family that upon hearing that their mother is terminally ill, decides to reunite for Christmas. This movie is odd, or at least it had an odd effect on me. Every character is simultaneously unlikable and magnetic. Plot-wise, there is no beginning or end, it's all middle. Taken scene by scene, this really cooks; the all-star cast is excellent. However, none of these leopards change their spots. When it's all over, it's just been a blur of merrymaking, affection, insults, neurosis, booze, and nursing grudges...just like the holidays.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Beginners (2011)

Writer/director Mike Mills' own experience when his seventy-four year old father came out as gay. After dad (Christopher Plummer) comes out, he takes the fast track to gayness, and soon is involved in various gay charity groups, going out to nightclubs, and takes a much younger man as a lover (Goran Visnijic). After his father dies (I'm not spoiling anything, he's already dead when the film begins, the story is told mostly in flashback) Mills (Ewan MacGregor) meets a girl at a costume party (Melanie Laurent...she's dressed as a man, nice touch) and soon learns to be brave in love just like his father.

This is very lopsided. I get that our parent's relationship informs the way we handle our own relationships, and his father's example is a powerful and valid way to frame this story. But the MacGregor/Laurent romance, which is the bulk of the movie, is unconvincing and uncompelling. The father/son story line is much more interesting, and MacGregor and Plummer have so much screen chemistry that when the film switches to present-day, it's like the movie hits the pause button. It's interrupting the better movie.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Cave Of Forgotten Dreams (2011)

Directed by Werner Herzog, aka "Mr. Sunshine", this documentary is about the 1994 discovery of cave paintings in France. These newly discovered caves contain exquisite works of art that, at thirty-thousand years old, are twice as old as what was then thought to be the oldest art on earth, in nearby Lascaux cave. Herzog is priceless, narrating in his teutonic monotone, his musings about time, death, and man's place in the universe are a hoot. The cave itself is beyond beautiful, and the art contained within is not primitive doodles, but sophisticated and monumental pieces, and these things are twenty-five thousand years older than the oldest pyramid. Due to the corrosive dangers of microbes and humidity, they are sealing up the entrance permanently. See this, for it may be your only glimpse.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Man Hunt (1941)

Thriller from director Fritz Lang about a British sharpshooter (a surprisingly good Walter Pidgeon) who is captured by the Nazis just as he is about to shoot Hitler. He had the son-of-a-bitch in his crosshairs and was about to pull the trigger when he's discovered! His interrogator (the always perfect George Sanders, speaking fluent German!) badgers, beats, and tortures him but still cannot get a confession. Before Sanders can stage a tragic "accident", Pidgeon manages to escape to London. But the bad guys are on his tail, lurking behind every foggy corner. He enlists the help of a cockney tart (the wonderful as always Joan Bennett...why did this woman never win an Academy Award?) to get him out of England and off the map.

Fritz Lang's evocation of spies and international mischief (Spione) and the criminal world (M) is beautifully rendered in this marvelous film (I may be alone in preferring his American work to the German stuff). Lang is well known for the visual elegance he brings to his films, and this one is no exception. You can see his aesthetic in every frame of this movie. What people don't often give him credit for is his ability with actors. The performances are great in this, particularly Bennett and Sanders. True, they are great actors...but they are better here than their usual excellent...and in roles that in the hands of lesser actors can fall into cliche territory (a whore with a heart of gold and a Nazi). Plus, an angelic Roddy MacDowell in his American film debut, and John Carradine as a Gestapo assassin (Lang and his cameraman Arthur Miller have a field day with Carradine's cadaver-like features). The three leads all seem like they're in a tightening vice. A major wartime film...think Casablanca, but take out that film's romance, humor, and insouciance, and add dread and nihilism.