Monday, December 20, 2010

11 more C-F blurbs on 12 more films, April 2009 - May 2010.

***

The Baader-Meinhof Complex (Uli Edel, 2008)
The Red Army Faction, brought to you by the producer of Resident Evil and Fantastic Four! Bernd Eichinger's starting a franchise: The Baader-Meinhof Complex is a spin-off of Downfall: besides Eichinger as screenwriter and producer, the two films share actor Bruno Ganz, cinematographer Rainer Klausmann and, even more importantly, production designer Bernd Lepel. It's The International inverted: the Tykwer film found in the crisp images of a modern thriller the tangled world of politics; Baader-Meinhof finds in Germany's tangled politics a crisp modern thriller. A whole lot of good opportunities tucked away in the history books: a band of policemen chasing a gunman along a silvery river; Deutschmarks crinkling like wrapping paper at Christmastime on an apartment floor; Ulrike Meinhof seated alone in her room with a desk and a typewriter, the television on. Martina Gedeck gets top billing as Meinhof: the unstable journalist-turned-figurehead is made into a crumbling moral observer. But the film's real center--and what ultimately defines it--is Johanna Wokalek's characterization of RAF theorist Gudrun Esselin. She's got thick black eyeliner and a raspy voice, and looks equally good in a leather jacket or naked. Poor history can make for alright entertainment.

Celine and Julie Go Boating (Jacques Rivette, 1974)
For all of its reputation as a film studies favorite and perennial thesis subject, Celine and Julie Go Boating is ultimately a great giddy fib of a movie, and probably the breeziest three-hour film ever made. Red-headed bluestocking Julie (Dominique Labourier) and pouty brunette Celine (Juliet Berto, the greatest improvisational actor of her generation and, goshdarnit, a real pretty girl) get involved with phantom ladies, horseplay, zombie make-up, incantations, Art Nouveau lettering, cats, loft beds, white bathrobes, a mysterious house, roller-skating, tarot, and magical candy in what is either a marathon round of Clue with liberal borrowings from Alice in Wonderland or an epic of playing dress-up and talking in funny voices. Shot on pastel-colored 16mm by Jacques Renard (familiar to those who attended last week's screening of The Mother and the Whore as Jean-Pierre Leaud's unnamed friend), its unavailability on domestic DVD is made doubly unfortunate by the fact that it's probably the best introduction you can have to the work of Jacques Rivette; its freeform sprawl is a counterpoint to the resigned smallness of his most recent (and possibly last) film, Around a Small Mountain, which screened at EU Fest last month. This is a great work of art, a loopy entertainment, and, despite (or maybe because of) its infamous narrative and spatial labyrinths, strangely liberating. (For those playing Post-Nouvelle Vague Bingo: this is the second movie in Doc's Tuesday series to be edited by Nicole Lubtchansky and to have a cameo by critic Jean Douchet.)

Harmony and Me (Bob Byington, 2009)
A series of trifles adds up to a trifle of a movie, sure--but trifles can make for a pleasant 75 minutes. Produced, as these cheap and unambitious movies usually are, by Filmscience, Harmony and Me is not much: just a series of jokes that remain funny until the next edit and are then forgotten. It's pretty good comedy, a little like laughing at a comedian you have no interest in ever seeing again at an open mic. Of course Justin Rice is in it, and of course he twists and contorts his tongue through the usual social acrobatics, surrounded by the usual mumblecore ringers as the twenty- and thirty-somethings and by broad caricatures as everybody else. Rice is funniest when he doesn't look people in the face and when it becomes obvious that he's far from being 20; Bob Byington knows those two principles, and that's enough to make a film.

Jet Pilot ("Josef von Sternberg," 1957)
Are Howard Hughes productions the most well-funded outsider art in history? Begun sometime in 1949 but released as his last film as producer, Jet Pilot is the masterpiece of the Hughes style, a live-action comic book in which a preteen boy's view of the world--complete with jet planes and an unconscious eroticization of external threats, namely women and Communism--is played out by John Wayne and Janet Leigh. Its intense simplicity borders on incoherence. The fact that it has any semblance of human emotion, or that its images make a lick of sense, can probably be credited to Josef von Sternberg, who was fired from the production (his only work in color) after a few months, though one assumes he had more say in the film than Howard Hawks did when Hughes hired him to helm the puritanical/psychotic Western The Outlaw (Hughes was in the habit of hiring and firing great directors; Don Siegel did unused re-shoots of Jet Piloet in the early 1950s). Wayne, who might as well be one of Henry Darger's hermaphroditic Vivian Girls, falls for Leigh's Soviet defector; they get married, and fly off to a honeymoon in her homeland. Of course she's a double agent, because alluring Commie women are treacherous that way. But before she can steal her new husband's precious bodily fluids (and the secrets of the US Air Force), Wayne gets wise, setting up the kind of romantic comedy that only the inelegant Hughes touch could make possible.

Me and Orson Welles (Richard Linklater, 2008)
Because Zac Efron wears his hair like Jean-Pierre Leaud, because the film positions art as forbidden pleasure and artists as striving for guiltlessness, because of the careful framing of sacred objects, because of the book hidden within a book, because the geometry of the frame resembles Antoine & Colette applied to a more traditional structure of master-shot-medium-close-up, because of the boy in over in his head who falls for an older woman instead of the redhead his own age (i.e. Stolen Kisses), because of camaraderie of the theater (Day for Night + The Last Metro)--because of, frankly, a lot of things, Me and Orson Welles seems at first glance to be Richard Linklater's "François Truffaut movie," Truffaut's concerns filtered through Linklater's cinephilia (his favorite film, Some Came Running, takes the place I Confess would for F.T.). This extended homage, whether deliberate or unconscious, will automatically peg it as "minor" for even Linklater fans, but in a minor film one often finds major ideas, and for a director as smart as Linklater, abandoning his usual trappings doesn't mean abandoning intelligence. On the contrary: Me and Orson Welles is felt-through and fully realized, and a raw nerve runs under this veneer of period-film clichés (Bronzed color grading? Check. Swing soundtrack? Check. Forced insertions of period slang like "swell" into otherwise genuine dialogue? Check.). As tied as his films are to concrete locations (Austin, Vienna, Paris, etc.), R.L.'s plots are all about going somewhere, and most of those film-journeys--whether Slacker, Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, Waking Life, Dazed & Confused and even Bad News Bears--are stories of arrivals (at a location/realization/idea); this one, on the other hand, is about a departure and a return, and there is a clear understanding that the week Richard Samuels (Efron) spends in the company of the Mercury actors in 1937 is all theater--it is a romance, a comedy and a myth staged for his benefit. When in the end, he realizes that even genius/dick/fraud/real deal Welles (Christian McKay, who at 35 is paradoxically more convincing as 22-year-old than 18-year-old Efron is as a teenager) was just acting for him, it's not a betrayal, but a victory. And that might just be Linklater's grand idea about the purpose of theater: having seen and enacted falseness, Samuels can now understand what is truly genuine.

My Little Chickadee (Edward F. Cline, 1940)
n My Little Chickadee, Mae West is paired with (or, really, against) W.C. Fields, whose nose is roughly the shape and size of one of her breasts. West had by this point already graduated from plump, foul-mouthed sexpot to biologically female drag queen. Fields, vaudeville juggler turned hooch-scented misanthrope, misogynist, mis-everything, seems like the perfect foil to deflate her everything (not the least of which is her ego). Surprisingly, they prove to be an even match, though that may be because West wrote most of the script. The result is a mean-spirited excursion into Western territory, with West's unfailing desire to play it both ways (to satirize "sexiness" while being perceived as "sexy") against Fields' relentless ugliness. Consisting of protracted scenes in stock genre locations (a train surrounded by Indians, a hotel, a saloon, a sheriff's office), which carefully build the jokes up through observation, commentary and repetition, it's a deeply bitter (West swore never to work with Fields again) and very funny film, full of bile and comic tension.

Nights and Weekends (Joe Swanberg, 2008)
Yes, it's the best Joe Swanberg movie, but is it Joe Swanberg's best movie? That seems like a funny question: Swanberg is clearly the author, the driving force, behind his films. But at the same time, he can't quite be called their director. He's a filmmaker first; what he does has very little to do with direction (which is credited to him and co-star Greta Gerwig) or dramaturgy (that can be credited to cinematographer Matthias Grunsky, "the steadiest shoulder in filmmaking," Andrew Bujalski's regular cameraman and an improvisational virtuoso who can get two people into a frame like no else; he shapes the action here into drama). He's a filmmaker in the sense that he makes a film, which is something like sending out invitations for a party or arranging a walk in Millennium Park. So it's possible to say that Alexander the Last is better directed, or that his one-scene cameo in Quiet City is his best acting, and still feel that Nights and Weekends might be the better film, because the closer you get to his contribution, the further you get away from his work. He's a matchmaker, a social worker, a half-willing negotiator; his goal, for better or worse, is the success of others. His performances, even in a movie like this one, where he shares top billing, have always been more about bringing out elements in other actors than making any sort of statement himself; to build a cinema of "real people," he's unwittingly become a character actor, both as a performer and as a filmmaker. So Nights and Weekends isn't really the story of a couple, but more the story of a girl, with Swanberg (as the boyfriend) coaxing Greta Gerwig's best performance out of her and moving his body around hers in a way that allows Grunsky and co-cinematographer Benjamin Kasulke (Swanberg apparently believes very firmly in the buddy system and Kasulke, who shot Maddin's Brand Upon the Brain!, is almost an even match for the Austrian) to create the most direct images to ever appear in his films.

Rien Que Les Heures (Albert Cavalcanti, 1926) & A Propos de Nice (Jean Vigo, 1930)
The beginning and end of the "city symphony," in one double feature: from Alberto Cavalcanti embracing Paris, with neither scorn nor praise (the impulse here is to capture, to mention), to Jean Vigo's show trial of a resort town, less a symphony than a raucous, mocking band. Cavalcanti finds beauty in the city as a place where so many different social strata live, sharing the same streets; Vigo sees only a group of wealthy escapists unknowingly subjugating the world. Besides coming from the same genre, both movies share another distinction: they were debuts. Rien Que Les Heures is a napkin sketch of that distinctly architectural style that would take Cavalcanti to England, back to his native Brazil, and finally to French television. A Propos de Nice is the first volley in Vigo's short snowball fight against the world. From unthinking wonder to invigorating contempt in 70 minutes.

The Road (John Hillcoat, 2009)
In The Road, Viggo Mortensen's face is caked with dirt; his eyes are beady and wild. He travels accompanied by his son, played by Kodi Smit-McPhee, an actor chosen for his striking resemblance to Charlize Theron, who plays Mortensen's late wife. Robert Duvall appears by the campfire as an old man; he's been made up to look like a crone in a Caravaggio painting, gray-lipped and cataract-eyed. The essence of this movie is all in the dirty faces. Actually, Mortensen's face never looks clean anyway; at best, it looks washed. Cronenberg uses this to great effect in A History of Violence; the actor's rustic features and skin make it seem as if he's just scrubbed off soot or mud or blood. Mortensen is therefore the perfect match for John Hillcoat, a director who films rough faces as if they were rugged landscapes (just look at the vistas of his last film, The Proposition: Guy Pearce's sunburn, Ray Winstone's red forehead, John Hurt's pores). Cormac McCarthy might have provided the source material, and Hurricane Katrina and the Tunguska Incident might have provided the reference points for the production designers, but it's the faces and the way that they're filmed that make The Road a good movie. Bankrolled, like all hopeless projects, by 2929 Productions, it's a daringly small film, devoid of any spectacle except for darting eyes, quivering mouths, and runny noses.

Saint Joan (Otto Preminger, 1957)
It's funny that Saint Joan, the movie where Otto Preminger deploys some of his longest and most detailed takes, should be so thoroughly a "hat-and-hair-movie"--a variation of the beloved "hat movie" genre in which meanings and characters can be divined from what the actors have on their heads, whether it's their haircuts (the cast includes Richard Widmark's childlike and psychotic bowl cut, Jean Seberg's boyish short hair, some wigs, and a profusion of tonsures) or headgear (Seberg's leather coif, which gives her the expression of an eager dog in a veterinary collar; Widmark's ill-fitting crown; countless bascinets, chaperons, hoods, and hats that resemble purses, thimbles, and discarded gloves). On the one hand, this is understandable (Bonjour Tristesseis, in some ways, a dress-and-swimsuit movie), and yet it seems to run counter to Preminger's intention of showing figures moving through history--but then again everything in Saint Joan seems to run counter to the intentions of its authors: Graham Greene's Catholic script romanticizes George Bernard Shaw's deliberately de-romanticized play, Preminger's direction turns "Shaw's only tragedy" into a rousing religious drama, and Jean Seberg's tomboy virginity seems to go beyond the scope of Preminger's analytical eye. Preminger's work was governed by a desire to fulfill two duties--to provide analysis, and to provide entertainment--and the balance in Saint Joan is squarely on the entertainment side. It is, in short, the least sensible Preminger, set in the sort of Middle Ages where everyone has dirty clothes and impeccably clean faces, a place where Seberg can rally her Transatlantic-accented troops to save Fr-ah-nce from Englishmen garrisoned in Schüfftan process castles. And yet there's a depth to this movie, even if there isn't any to its painted backdrops: it exists in the details, in how ill-fitting Joan's long hair looks when she has it (even if it's not a wig, it fits like one) and in how the Inquisitor's cap fits his head like a condom. It's the rarest of movies: a masterwork of objects.

Small Soldiers (Joe Dante, 1998)
Small Soldiers is one of Joe Dante's tilt-shift satires, where prejudices/desires/America get miniaturized to the size of toys (see also Gremlins 2, Matinee, certain parts of Looney Tunes: Back in Action) and tossed around, burned, played with. Two well-meaning toymakers (a strangely Jerry Lewis-like David Cross, and Jay Mohr doing Dean-lite) design a line of action figures using their parent company's military artificial intelligence chips, unaware of the consequences. When the teenage son of a bumbling toy shop owner talks a delivery truck driver into letting him have a few for his store, they come to life and wreak Chuck Jones havoc (rockets, pop culture references, sound effects gags) on a sleepy town (locals include Phil Hartman and a 15-year-old Kirsten Dunst, seeming more alive than she does in any of her adult roles). Some of Dante's funniest material is here, as is some of his creepiest, like the scene where an army of sentient Barbie dolls tie Dunst while blasting a Led Zeppelin song.

Woman in the Window (Fritz Lang, 1944)
The first thing that strikes you about Woman in the Window is that you're expected to believe that Edward G. Robinson is a fogeyish square in baggy trousers and striped socks; this movie's a parade of physiognomies (just look at the membership of the club Robinson hangs out in--one fat, one short, one lean...), and E.G.R.'s harsh face hints otherwise. But maybe that's because Woman in the Window is a film that intends to make us see through the way the characters present themselves and how they rationalize their actions. After all, if they're so erudite and educated, why are Robinson and his friends so struck by a kitschy portrait? If they're real intellectuals, then why does the intellectualism they practice consist of sitting around in armchairs smoking? If Dan Duryea's supposed to be such a smooth operator, why does he wear that ridiculous boater that makes his ears look like snowshoes? If Joan Bennett is so universally beautiful, why does she put on so much make-up? The truth is that in this movie, everything's a sham, especially the ending. It is, along with Clash by Night, one of the cruelest of Fritz Lang's American movies, which Cine-File's Rob Christopher succinctly dubbed "majestic downers" when writing about Scarley Street (made the next year with the same cast and a similar set-up) last week. Maybe the cruelest aspect of Woman in the Window is that the camera always moves a beat too early, as though in anticipation of the next step. And it always guesses right.

1 comment:

zigzagwanderer said...

i want more.