Last 10 Films: From SALMON to CHANNING

DARK SHADOWS: Don’t piss off Ms. Pfeiffer

Since PIFF (and hopefully, an extensive review of the new Wes Anderson film) looms, some short takes on what I’ve seen over the past five weeks…

Even with a novel premise (the title is all you need to know), a sturdy (if unexceptional) anchor in Ewan McGregor and sound support from Emily Blunt and a tart Kristin Scott Thomas, it all sinks under the weight of some forced melodrama involving Emily’s character and an additional love interest included only to keep her and Ewan apart. What, you’d expect more from such an obviously faux-indie romantic comedy, not to mention director Lasse Hallstrom, who at the very least once had the ineffable charms of Juliette Binoche and Johnny Depp to peddle this kind of mush?  C-

Art theft in the guise of corporate headhunting is all fun and games until you discover an unconscious body slumped over in the front seat of your car (or find yourself literally standing up to your ears in shit). This quick-witted, twisty and occasionally gruesome Norwegian import starts off slow but is a hoot from the moment that body shows up in the car. Aksel Hennie is a refreshingly diminutive anti-hero, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau is a delectably deceitful villain and the story is involving and enjoyable enough to nearly make up for its implausibility.  B

Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman’s films seem custom made for multiple viewings; this, the one he also directed, perhaps the most Kaufmaniest of them all, absolutely requires them. On my third go-around (and first since its theatrical release), it did not resonate emotionally with me the way fellow multiple-viewing-reward-er Wes Anderson often does, but I found it more fascinating than ever. Just the synecdoches themselves, whether in the production design or the dialogue, drawn you in with their ingenuity and sheer omnipresence. I originally called the film an absolutely terrifying comedy; four years later (and older), it’s more of a hilarious tragedy.  A

Not exactly a return to form for Tim Burton, but easily the best remake/adaptation he’s done since his BATMAN films. Junk culture like a cheesy horror-laced soap opera seems closer to his heart than Lewis Carroll or Roald Dahl ever did, and it was a near genius move to set most of it in 1972—the era’s bad taste meshes very well with the gothic overtones. Apart from a real live Alice Cooper appearance, the pop music cues are thudding and obvious but for once, Johnny Depp as Barnabas Collins is perfect casting and the ensemble works too—even Michelle Pfeiffer looks like she hasn’t had this much fun in twenty years.  B+

This ripped-from-the-headlines tale of a meek funeral director who murders a wealthy, irascible widow is meant to play like MIDNIGHT IN THE GARDEN OF SMALL TOWN EAST TEXAS. While Austinite Richard Linklater is the right director for the region, he’s not a great fit for dark comedy. Thus, the film never finds the right tone and loses momentum post-murder. Jack Black displays more nuance than usual and it’s always a hoot to see Shirley MacLaine play the bitch. The best parts of BERNIE, however, are the interviews with real residents of the town sprinkled throughout, suggesting this could’ve been a great Errol Morris documentary.  B-

Andrei Zvyagintsev’s THE RETURN is one of the best directorial debuts of the past decade. His second film (which never found US distribution) was nearly as good, and his third is nearly as good as the second. If this suggests a very gradual decline, it shouldn’t because the direction, visual palette and acting are consistently strong in all three. That leaves the story, which carries intriguing implications about class, family, loyalty and wealth, all in a post-Soviet Russian context.  While these implications linger long after the credits roll, the story wraps up with little mystery or ambiguity, feeling a little pat, which makes this a slightly lesser (if no less technically accomplished) work from a still-promising director.  A-

The essential screwball comedy and a strong candidate for my all-time favorite comedy. Watching it for probably the tenth or twelfth time (and my first in a theatre), I was left speechless by its non-stop hilarity. I mean, every single scene is jam-packed with as many jokes as a film like AIRPLANE!, yet they all hit their targets and do so gracefully. The awe-inspiring (and somewhat depressing) thing is, it’s hard to believe anyone could ever replicate this level of sublime silliness—it’s a faultless work that will likely endure long after today’s rom-com fixtures are forgotten.  A+

With this tale of retiree-age Brits relocating to India, I expected an entertaining, middlebrow dramedy and it was exactly what I got. What I did not expect, however, was how affecting it occasionally was. On one hand, how could it fail with the likes of Judi Dench, Tom Wilkinson, Bill Nighy, etc; (although Dev Patel doesn’t help matters by egregiously overacting); on the other, why should it succeed? Perhaps director John Madden’s depiction of India is more subtle and honest than Danny Boyle’s? Or is it because a few of the narratives here (particularly Wilkinson’s) take thoughtful, unexpected turns? Whatever the reason, it mostly works.  B+

Forget Teams Edward and Jacob; I’m on Team Bill Condon, who is the first director of this frankly ridiculous franchise since Catherine Hardwicke to exhibit some personality. The baby-birthing climax owes more than a little to ROSEMARY’S BABY, but gleefully revels in the utter schlock of such a conceit. The rest is ho-hum and Jacob such an annoyingly inconsistent character that I groan every time he appears. Let’s hope Condon retains and expands that final scene’s energy into the saga’s upcoming final chapter.  C

You may argue that the world wasn’t waiting for a Carol Channing documentary, to which I respond, “Yes, but can anyone name another performer remotely like her?” That instantly recognizable voice alone could inspire its own Broadway musical. Pushing 90, Channing nearly looks it and has lost much of her physical agility, but she’s as lucid and charming as ever. Her late-in-life reunion with her first and truest love gives her story a touching arc and the archival footage from all stages of her career is a treat. If the praise heaped upon her by one interviewee after another has a whiff of hagiography at first, it quickly dissipates as one realizes Channing is the real deal—she’s one of the most genuine and generous living legends we have.  B

Last 4 Films: From DAMSELS to POPEYE

No one could ever mistake a Whit Stillman film for the work of anyone else. His comedies of manners, set in blatantly anachronistic worlds of the affected and the privileged (and those who aspire to be as such) have always carried a potential to lapse into insufferableness; what saves them is his deft touch and acute understanding of what makes his characters tick, flaws and all. Co-ed Violet (Greta Gerwig, eerily but not all that surprisingly channeling a young Chloe Sevigny), the protagonist of the director’s first feature in over a decade is a quintessential Stillman heroine: an articulate idealist fully aware of how exasperating she occasionally is, she’s cultured and a bit arrogant but vulnerable and well-intentioned.

Together with her three female cohorts, Violet wants to continually improve their (fictional) Seven Oaks college campus, a male-centric bastion of filthy frat houses, young men they dub “playboy operator types” and students depressed enough to fling themselves from top floor of a particular building (thankfully, it’s only two stories high). Her philosophy consists of a particular code of conduct where donuts and tap-dancing provide therapy and a scented bar of soap emits ineffable solace. As she dishes out advice to new girl Lily (Analeigh Tipton), she seems alternately ingenuous and foolish, more so the latter when the advice backfires.

Though DAMSELS IN DISTRESS retains most of the loopy grace and acidic wit of Stillman’s earlier work, it’s far more uneven. For every inspired fleeting moment (many of which contain dancing!), there’s a less involving sequence such as Violet’s and Lily’s revolving and frankly uninteresting love lives. If you don’t like the earlier films, you probably won’t care for this one either; Stillman devotees, however, need to see it, if only as reassurance that someone still makes pictures like this and has the audacity to give them an ending so rationally ridiculous and yet, kind of glorious for its sheer chutzpah tinged with elegance. Grade: 8

I admittedly find pleasure in witnessing audiences flock to a doc about Jiro Ono, an eighty-five year old sushi chef. His restaurant, a ten-seat kiosk inconspicuously located inside a Tokyo subway station, is booked months in advance. I assume that the art and science of crafting sushi holds an allure for anyone who eats the stuff (myself included)—the preparation is entirely its own thing in terms of world cuisines (I was most intrigued by the technique of “massaging an octopus” for over forty minutes to ensure ideal tenderness). Ono’s life story with his complete dedication to and love of his trade are enough to build a film around him. However, even at 81 minutes, it feels repetitious and prolonged—perhaps I would have gotten more out of it if Ono were less reserved (although I enjoyed his steely glare at a pokey customer) and half as colorful as, say, Kenny Shopsin of I LIKE KILLING FLIES, itself a great, little-seen doc that explores a similar mélange of food, art and life with much less pretension. 6

Rainer Werner Fassbinder made over thirty films in a 13-year period. Although such a concentrated oeuvre contains considerable breadth, commitment and genius, not everything in it can possibly live up to the man’s legend. I’d like to suggest that this recently unearthed three-and-a-half-hour television production is of interest to completists and/or sci-fi devotees only. However, with Fassbinder, it’s never that simple. Anticipating everything from VIDEODROME to INCEPTION, this perception of a world where a computer can conjure alternate, simultaneous realities fascinates simply for how of its time it appears—the earth-toned, post-brutalist 1970s in all their faux-futuristic glory. But the whole damn thing is so dryly impenetrable it often doesn’t jibe with the emotions (mostly fear, despair and yearning) one is meant to feel from it. No grade, because I need to see it again to fully comprehend the method to Werner’s madness—and I’m not sure I want to.

Although I rarely return to movies of my childhood, I’ve been meaning to watch this again because it’s a Robert Altman film and thus the first one I ever saw, albeit without understanding what that implies. (Also, this is the year of the Shelley Duvall Revival). As Altman films go, it’s a weird one: largest budget he ever worked with, only project of his you’d probably let your kids watch, and it’s a musical, for chrissakes. Actually, the musical score (songs by Nilsson, arranged by Van Dyke Parks!) is the most endearing thing about it—seeing Duvall (as Olive Oyl) perform “He Needs Me” onscreen, you fully understand why Paul Thomas Anderson appropriated the song for PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE. The entire cast is pitch-perfect even beyond the two iconic leads (special kudos to Paul Dooley’s wryly underplayed Wimpy). Yet, I wouldn’t place POPEYE in my top ten Altman—as corny as it is sly, it goes on for too long and the bathetic third act bespeaks a cheap sentimentality I never thought I’d see from him. Still, alongside BREWSTER McCLOUD and perhaps parts of NASHVILLE, it’s his most ambitious pop-art extravaganza. Also, the deliberately ramshackle, pre-CGI environment looks spectacular. 7


Robot and Frank (Frank, Robot)

I’ve been wanting review every film I see on this blog. Naturally, it’s easy to fall behind, especially as other things get in the way (work, writing blurbs for IFF Boston, getting caught up on the ridiculously entertaining RuPaul’s Drag Race, etc;).  So, I will try again to write at least one sentence (preferably more) on everything going forward and will probably clump them in groups of “last X number of films seen” unless I have a lot more to say about a single title (or, in the case of upcoming film festivals, where I hope to post a full-length review of each title).

To kick things off, the last five. Titles I’m not viewing for the first time will be noted with a viewing history (as accurate as I can remember before I began keeping a spreadsheet in 2004, anyway). I’m also going to rate everything on a score of 1 to 10 – let’s face it, I like ratings, you probably like them as well. But don’t put too much though into them (I certainly haven’t…)

As with the Twilight saga, I hadn’t read the books; unlike Stephanie Meyer’s vampire romance, after seeing this adaptation, I’m now intrigued to check out Suzanne Collins’ prose. I’m not a huge sci-fi/fantasy fan, but the story here and its imaginatively realized, self-contained world not only buzzes with energy and detail onscreen but also seems eerily plausible (though not to the degree the “future” does in Children of Men). Jennifer Lawrence proves she can carry an event film as well as she did a low-budget indie like Winter’s Bone and the ensemble ranges from inspired (Woody Harrelson and Stanley Tucci, both perfectly cast) to serviceable (Lenny Kravitz, Josh Hutcherson) to eccentric (Elizabeth Banks, unrecognizable in wedding cake wig/makeup and wardrobe to match). Apart from Katniss/Peeta, the inter-character relationships seem a little underdeveloped, but at two hours plus, it rarely drags. As first-films-in-trilogies go, this has the promise (if not the gravitas) of The Fellowship of the Ring, but remember, people liked the first Matrix film as well. My score:  8

(Seen at a trade screening, this will be released later in 2012)
The premise sounds precariously iffy: in the “near future”, Frank (Frank Langella), a retired old coot suffering from the early stages of Alzheimer’s, is given a robot caretaker from his son. Although it looks rather cheap (resembling EVE from Wall-E), the Robot (Frank refuses to name him) is actually pretty sleek and spry–it cooks, cleans, gardens and is something of a personal trainer (it’s also voiced by Peter Sarsgaard, who does a recognizable but not overdone variation of HAL 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey). A good portion of the film’s comedic energy comes from a smart, snappy screenplay and Langella’s rapport with Sarsgaard. It also turns out that Frank used to be a jewel thief, and he uses the Robot to get back into the game, although for Frank it’s less about making a living than just having a challenging project. For good and for ill, the Robot keeps him on his toes. However, Frank’s encroaching illness and the film’s subtly designed “near future” keeps us on our toes. Acerbically funny and also a little sad, Robot and Frank proves how well a high concept can work if its execution is relatable and humane.  9

This Terence Rattigan adaptation fits comfortably into Terence Davies’ filmography–perhaps a little too comfortably. The post-World War II setting and themes of repressed sexuality and unrequited love will seem overly familiar to fans of both Davies’ tone poem works (The Long Day Closes) and his other literary adaptations (The House of Mirth).  Still, given that this is only his sixth feature in a quarter of a century, it’s hard to complain, “Oh, another Davies film”, especially since his languorous tracking shots, poetic visuals (especially his use of light and darkness) and employment of period music as a means of expression through sing-a-longs all still resonate and service the material well.

Rachel Weisz is terrific as Rattigan’s impulsive, romantically tortured heroine; her later scenes with her wealthy ex (Simon Russell Beale) are particularly tender and affecting, but you rarely fathom her attraction to the younger war veteran (Tom Hiddleston) she leaves him for, partially because her chemistry with Hiddleston isn’t as strong, but mostly because the film glosses over their relationship’s nuances, jumping from one emotional state to another while missing a beat or two. Worth seeing for Terence admirers (both Davies and Rattigan) but not a sufficient gateway for those unfamiliar with either artist.  7

(previously seen February 2005)
I wrote about this fascinating, little-seen Robert Altman film HERE – little-seen because, at the time, it was not on DVD (I had to get a VHS copy from the library). Now, it’s finally available (albeit in a Warners Archive edition which is not on Netflix). On a second viewing, I’m still fond of it even though I hesitate to include it in my top ten Altman films. It’s shaggy to a fault and seems less like a complete work of art than an inclusive canvas for ideas and experiments, both successful and not.  This time, I admired the time capsule effect of using Houston landscapes (as opposed to a generic L.A. setting) and the rediscovery of so many things I had forgotten: Stacy Keach in aged makeup and a wheelchair! Michael Murphy’s super cop and his arsenal of turtlenecks in a rainbow of solids! (Almost) the entire cast in outrageous circus garb over the closing credits! At this phase in his career (I won’t defend his post-Nashville disasters), even when Altman is gloriously off, he’s at the very least interesting. 8

An Israeli father and son, both well-versed scholars in Talmudic studies, experience conflict when one is mistakenly awarded a prestigious annual prize that was actually meant for the other. The mistaken winner, however, is unaware of the mistake. It’s a neat premise and to his credit, director/writer Joseph Cedar centers the film on it and gets considerable mileage out of drama (and comedy) inherent in knowledge the audience and certain characters possess that other characters do not.  But the manic editing and even more frenzied score feel like distractions rather than compliments and the film ends before the central conflict is resolved–a daring, different choice, which is not the same as a satisfying one (even on its intended intellectual level). 5