Home Movies #5

This month’s Home Movies column threads on a broad selection of films. From a comic Italian picture to an atypical musical, this latest batch have been among some of the more pleasant surprises of the past month – it’s been a busy period for me as I’ve just managed to settle into my new apartment while getting through various work-related deadlines. It’s nearing the end of July though – time is flying.

Dancer in the Dark (2000) Directed by Lars von Trier

Several years ago I was mesmerized by brutal range of emotions that Lars von Trier was able to extract out of Emily Watson in Breaking the Waves. Afterward, I was similarly leveled by Nicole Kidman’s performance in Dogville. And then there’s Charlotte Gainsbourg in Antichrist – the most impressive female performance of the past ten years. Often spoke of in the same breath, Bjork’s performance in Dancer in the Dark falls in line with the series of female victims in Trier’s films, though perhaps the sheer brutality of what is on-screen seems a bit more tame in comparison to some of his more recent films. Obviously, that’s taking into account Dancer in the Dark’s brutal murder sequence and a gruesome hanging - perhaps Trier has simply desensitized me to his brand of miserablism. Cinema of this nature (one so grounded in the misery of people) simply doesn’t resonate with me as profound. If it weren’t for Trier’s firm directorial presence, I fear I would not have been able to maintain my measure of interest in picture.

Rating: 6/10

Water for Elephants (2011) Directed by Francis Lawrence

On a scale of 1-10, my interest in watching Water for Elephants was… well, not particularly high on the spectrum. But I gave it a try, and surprisingly, the picture is effective. While utilizing a useless framing device to structure its narrative, it doesn’t have the same sort of intrusiveness that plagued a film like The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. And much like Button, what really elevates Water for Elephants is the stellar collaborators at Francis Lawrence’s disposal – the gorgeous sun-drenched cinematography of Rodrigo Prieto operates in wonderful contrast to Jacqueline West’s Depression-era costumes and David Crank’s art direction. Unfortunately, a substantial dichotomy between the picture’s aesthetics and writing persists. Still, the triad of Robert Pattinson, Christoph Waltz, and Reese Witherspoon diligently sell the material – and I was buying.  

Rating: 6/10

Divorce Italian Style (1961) Directed by Pietro Germi

Pietro Germi’s ability to adopt a sociological lens without compromising his comedic tendencies in Seduced and Abandoned and especially Divorce Italian Style is nothing short of remarkable. Divorce Italian Style sees Germi analyze the communal nature of a Sicilian family, as Baron Ferdinando Cefalù (Marcello Mastroianni) yearns for his cousin while plotting an elaborate plan to coerce his wife into having an affair.  Brandishing a nervous tick, Mastroianni excels as the sort of neurotic husband who fantasizes about a future that is really too good to be true. The film’s richness lies in how Germi constructs the Sicilian neighborhood – much like what was seen in Seduced and Abandoned, virtually every character’s actions are decided by the norms and mores of their community. Complimented by Germi’s excellent framing and clear understanding of his spatial setting, Divorce Italian Style is excels best as a portrait of a man who is confined by a social structure  and his futile attempts to work within the system to get what he wants.

Rating: 9/10

The Navigator (1924) Directed by Donald Crisp & Buster Keaton

The wide range of characters that Buster Keaton took on through his career gives him a versatility that cannot be matched. Whereas I always favored Charlie Chaplin to Keaton’s work, I’m beginning to feel a change of heart. The loveable tramp found in City Light and The Gold Rush begins to look a little less complex when faced with the sissy schoolboy in Steamboat Bill Jr., the daydreaming projectionist of Sherlock Jr., or the egotistical one-percenter in The Navigator. What this allows is a level of flexibility in narrative and character that really does give Keaton an edge over his main silent-era rival.

The Navigator may just be Keaton’s best picture. It’s larger than the grounded Sherlock Jr., but somewhat less frantic than The General or Steamboat Bill Jr. It’s perhaps the most tightly constructed of all of his films – at a runtime of 60 minutes every scene has such a spontaneous comedic spirit that etches a smile onto your face. Along with being one of Keaton’s most impressive visionary works, it’s immediately identifiable on a personal level. It’s a love story first and foremost, where proving to both yourself and the person you love that you are more than what you may put on. It’s a matter of growing up and accepting a measure of responsibility that’s foreign to them. That’s where a lot of comedy comes from, as Keaton absent-mindedly goes underwater to fix a leak without the slightest clue of how to get it done. It’s all funny material, but there’s a poignancy attached to it that gives it added depth.

Rating: 10/10

Home Movies #4

Following a vacation to Los Angeles for my birthday, I’m back in front of my computer writing about movies. And it’ll be a busy next few weeks, as I’m working on tweaking the site a bit with new Oscar predictions, a new addition of the Thursday Ten, and a new in-depth film analysis for the Essential Series.

Until then, here’s an update to my Home Movies column. It’s a particularly jam-packed write-up, as I’m deviating from my self-imposed rule of only including home viewings. And with this, I mean I caught a few revival films over the past few weeks, as part of the Music Box’s Billy Wilder series and the Gene Siskel Film Center’s Studio Ghibli tribute. While the summer months have been a wasteland for mainstream theaters (more so than usual, really), it’s the local independent theaters that have really made a hell of a save.

Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! (1990) Directed by Pedro Almodóvar

I’ve been sporadically going through Pedro Almodóvar’s filmography over the past few months as a result of my admiration for The Skin I Live In and a much needed second screening of Volver. Since then, I’ve seen a mix of his earlier and later works, including Bad Education, Law of Desire, and Woman on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (covered in Home Movies #2). Each film exemplifies his impressive knack for design and bombastic narrative tendencies.

With Tie Me Up! Time Me Down! Almodóvar puts the audience in yet another uncomfortable position as he creates a situation where we begin to sympathize with a kidnapper. The picture doesn’t make any particularly novel statements on the concept of Stockholm syndrome, but Almodóvar’s stylistically brash tendencies present the material with a pulpy and comedic aura. Almodóvar’s thesis lacks dimension beyond the possibility that women actually might embrace subversion if the source comes from a place of love. But Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! tends to cushion any potential debate with Almodóvar’s comedic instincts. It works more as an absurdist comic piece than anything else, but I have to speculate on some missed potential here.

Rating: 6/10

Some Kind of Wonderful (1987) Directed by Howard Deutch

I’ve never been much of a fan of John Hughes. With the dated nature of his writing and direction, I’ve never found him capable of illustrating a genuine sense of what it means to be a youth. Instead, all of his writing tends to come from a place where heteronormative white males dominate the narrative landscape. And most problematic of all, most of his observations on socioeconomic disparities are confined within white culture.

A lot of those complaints can be applied to Some Kind of Wonderful, a film that Hughes wrote. But what makes this picture work is the sincere romance found between its lead characters. The confusion and disorientation associated with a crush registers as true. And unlike films like The Breakfast Club or Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, the picture maintains a methodical trajectory. The emotional crescendos crash appropriately – right as the characters begin to converge.  Some Kind of Wonderful may lack a strong directorial voice, but Hughes really comes off the page, illustrating that maybe my first impressions of him were off the mark.

Rating: 7/10

The Lost Weekend (1945) Directed by Billy Wilder

The heavy handedness of addition personified on film makes it difficult for me to ever wholly embrace a given picture. From Leaving Las Vegas to Requiem for a Dream, these pictures certainly drag the audience through the dirt. They’re heavy experiences that don’t exactly put you in the best of spirits. The Lost Weekend predates the aforementioned pictures by a half century and accomplishes a greater sense of audaciousness in its portrayal of addiction. Starring Ray Milland as a man whose failed ambitions caused him to turn to the bottle, The Lost Weekend is an example of virtuoso filmmaking. Its opening sequence, which sees Milland attempting to get his brother and girlfriend out of the apartment in a vain attempt to acknowledge the concealed bottle suspended outside his windowsill, is constructed with such directorial finesse and an unrivaled writing dexterity.

But jeez, is this film a tough one to sit through. Accomplished as it is on a formal and narrative level, its central character evokes such great pity. The Lost Weekend illustrates the capacity that film can have as a medium to illustrate the miseries of humankind. Utilizing Milland as a vessel, the subsequent unhappiness that comes with adulthood and the loss of youthful vigor and promise is realized through this singular character. That in itself is a minor miracle, along with the fact that it was release over sixty years ago through a studio system that simply did not acknowledge such complexities.

Rating: 8/10

Only Yesterday (1991) Directed by Isao Takahata

While Isao Takahata’s Grave of the Fireflies is his most prolific work, I’d take Only Yesterday over it by a fair margin. The picture has its share of grating flaws, including a narrative framework that can grow tiresome toward the end of its runtime. But the emotional resonance it conjures through its youthful nostalgia provides the material with a timelessness quality. The framework, which involves a young woman taking a train to the countryside, reflects on her youth. The initial hour delves into the various stories that we can all relate to – the first vacation with the family, a first crush, seeking peer and parental acceptance, and all the random memories that, for one reason or another, just stick with you.

While all the memories that the main character reflects on are wholly her own, they still possesses a universal quality. They possess a flexibility that could be adjusted to your own. Only Yesterday may not have the social relevance that Takahata’s Grave of the Fireflies has, or the supernatural majesty of Hayao Miyazaki’s picture. No, it falls more in line with Yoshifumi Kondô’s Whisper of the Heart. Both pictures probe the lives of young women in a realistic way. Simultaneously, the both possess surreal moments in their narrative to elaborate a particular feel for youth. Rich with imagination yet unshakably grounded, Only Yesterday sits with the finest of Studio Ghibli’s output.

Rating: 9/10

The Major and the Minor (1942) Directed by Billy Wilder

I tend to use the word “delightful” sparingly when describing a film. But Billy Wilder’s debut feature, The Major and the Minor, could not be described in any other way. What could have been a film that dawdled on gimmickry becomes something so much more. Both innocent and risqué, The Major and the Minor supplies an endless well of charm. I tend to have reservations for screwball comedies in general, but Wilder’s picture melts any concerns away. Why? That’s a bit hard to pinpoint. It could be Ginger Rogers’ performance, which went against my expectations going in. Having only seen Rogers perform with Fred Astaire, she managed to really resonate on her own. Or it could be Ray Milland’s gleefully obtuse character, whose kindness seems to spawn out of a chivalrous place foreign in contemporary cinema.

My experience watching (and revisiting) The Major and the Minor is similar to my experience with Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights. Both pictures glow in their humanistic qualities. Innocent in their constructions, they touch upon universal themes of love and finding a place in the world without even making a conscious effort of trying. They tell simple stories of universal heft. I’ve always considered Wilder to be a very accomplished director, but the degree in which I’ve appreciated his work has grown tremendously over the past week with my exposure to The Lost Weekend and The Major and the Minor. Both pictures dwell on the systematic disappointment and happiness with life – the range that Wilder displays in the craft of films that were made three years apart immediately draws attentions to his immaculate skill.

Rating: 10/10

Home Movies #3

Busy would be the most appropriate word choice for the past month. Following a job promotion and an approaching move, I’ve had less and less time to commit to blogging. But as things kinda begin to settle, I’m hoping that I’ll be able to dedicate more time to my passion of watching films. It’s not as if I’ve stopped entirely either – it’s really a matter of reconciling time for watching films and time for writing about them. With the summer movie season under way, it’s really about time I get back into the swing of things. It’s especially the case with the Cannes Film Festival wrapping up, as big films are on the horizon. Expect some changes to the Chicago Cinema Circuit in June, including my first analysis of the upcoming awards season.  Until then, here’s another addition of my Home Movies column. There’s no grand theme uniting the three films selected here – it’s simply a random selection of films that I’ve had on my queue for a while now.

The Woman (2011) Directed by Lucky McKee

The effectiveness of The Woman stems from Lucky McKee’s ability to augment tension from two divergent plot threads. Both a drama and horror film, The Woman adopts a framework of instilling fear and dread through both the mundane and exotic. The film’s central antagonist is a cutthroat father, essentially instilling a deliberate male-driven hegemony in his own household. His belittlement of women extends from the corporate world where he arrogantly flirts with his secretary to the domestic, where he shouts orders at his wife and older daughter. Meanwhile, his son views him as a mentor, whereupon the perpetuation of male dominance is clearly outlined. As if on a conquest, the father enters the wilderness, gun in tow, and stumbles upon Woman. Woman is dominant and self-sufficient – qualities that the father labels as savage. This prompts him to capture Woman as she is obviously in desperate need of civilizing.

Note that I avoided using any names for the family. My most serious concern with The Woman stems from its on-the-nose symbolic representation of characters. They’re lacking in human qualities wherein they’re subscribing to overt allegorical qualities.  The visceral nature forgives this to an extent, but as I’m reflecting on the picture, it’s something that becomes increasingly grating. The Woman has subtext worth analyzing, but it’s not a particularly deep or stirring film – it’s more disturbing in its images than in what it has to say.

Rating: 6/10

Only Angels Have Wings (1939) Directed by Howard Hawks

The first forty minutes of Only Angels Have Wings is excellent. It’s an immaculately crafted first act that opens up a world unbeknownst to contemporary viewers and moves through it with diligence and force. It encapsulates moments of mystery, curiosity, blossoming love, and tragedy. But as the picture progresses, a particularly cynical worldview begins to overwhelm the picture’s emotional depth. I commented on the lack of depth in The Woman, Only Angels Have Wings does warrant more carful mining. Following the death of a messenger pilot, the picture begins to question the nature of reconciling professionalism with the emotional work associated with it. Bonnie (Jean Arthur) reacts to the death of the pilot that she only befriended minutes ago with a deep sense of loss. Everyone else around her, including the pilot’s boss Geoff (Cary Grant), get back to their drinking and move forward.

What follows is essentially a rethread of the previous event; a pilot will die and we will await the reaction (or non-reaction) of the film’s cast. This purposeful emotional restraint makes it difficult for me to ever really embrace Only Angels Have Wings – there’s a stasis that runs through the film’s tone that gives the picture a stagnant feel midway through its second act. By the time the picture unveils its emotional crescendo, my senses were dulled.

Perhaps a result of my lacking experience with Hollywood pictures of the 1930s, or my indifference toward Howard Hawks’ films, but the stagnant pacing and muted emotional tone handicaps the promise of an incredibly riveting opening act.

Rating: 6/10

Black Narcissus (1947) Directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger

I hoped to avoid a hackneyed phrase like “they don’t make films like this anymore”, but it’s the best way of describing the general plot of Black Narcissus. Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s films tend to have this quality – whether it is the contemporary modifications made to Chaucer’s source material in A Canterbury Tale or the dazzling ballet spectacle of The Red Shoes, the directors rarely dabble in the mundane. It’s what sets Black Narcissus apart, as it’s a film dealing with the growing anxieties between missionary nuns attempting to establish a school and hospital in the Himalayas. The nun’s sexual repression is tested in both the physical and spiritual, whereupon the history of the land begins to seep into their subconscious and tests their dedication to their profession. In some ways, it recalls the narrative framework of the aforementioned Only Angels Have Wings, but with a larger emotional spectrum to deal with.

It’s an incredibly moving picture, one where sparse dialogue is complemented by stunning visual imagery. The fact that the picture was shot all within the confines of a studio is a testament to the stellar artistic talent associated with the production.  And the subtleties in direction are quite impressive, particularly in flashback sequences where the duo can aggressively move the camera to coincide with a rush in action.  While I wasn’t a big fan of The Red Shoes or Michael Powell’s solo directorial effort, Peeping Tom, both A Canterbury Tale and now Black Narcissus have etched a place in my all-time favorite films. Immaculately crafted and rigidly defiant in expectations, Powell and Pressburger essentially made films that defied a place in time – they exist on their own as masterpieces.

Rating: 10/10

Home Movies #2

Since I’ve shifted my blog to account for my contemporary cinema viewings, I’ve neglected to write about the many films I’ve seen at home. And well, there have been a lot of them. Given that these early months tend to leave a lot to be desired in the cinema, I figured I could introduce a new column that focuses solely on my at-home viewings. I won’t delve too deeply into any particular picture like I do with my Essential Series column, instead I’m just offering a little snip it of the sorts of films I’m checking out nowadays.

With this week’s column, I shifted gears and looked into some newer pictures, stepping out from my 30s cinema project for a moment.

The Chocolate War (1988) Directed by Keith Gordon

I’ve never read Robert Cormier’s young adult novel, which initially puts me at a disadvantage for accepting the material explored in Keith Gordon’s adaptation. It’s a difficult premise to fully accept, as a young man becomes the subject of bullying and social scrutiny when he refuses to take part in the annual chocolate sale at his private school. There’s an air of implausibility of most of the plot, which involves a corrupted priest exercising capitalist ambitions and a secret tribunal society of privileged students. The surrealist nature of the picture is aided by Gordon’s own directorial presence, which borrows heavily from Stanley Kubrick and Martin Scorsese. With excellent cinematography from Tom Richmond and sharp editing by Jeff Wishengrad, The Chocolate War is a surprisingly effective display of filmmaking technique. Gordon gives the picture a particularly somber feel. His style and the material operate on very different levels, therein projecting an oddity of a picture in tone. Still, The Chocolate War is a film that subverts expectations and has the formal elegance to make its surrealist material have genuine emotional strength.

Rating: 7/10

Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988) Directed by Pedro Almodóvar

My admiration for Pedro Almodóvar’s films started from the moment that I saw Talk to Her a few years ago. And as I watched films like Volver and All About My Mother, I realized that his work speaks to a very specific demographic. I continued to admire his work, but something about it just never wholly clicked for me. That is until I saw 2011’s The Skin I Live In, which utilizes genre tropes to tell an incredibly shocking story. It reignited my passion in the director, as his formal elegance managed to finally coalesce with a narrative that I could really give myself to.

With Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, one of Almodóvar’s earliest works, I see him refining the sort of style that he utilized to great effect in All About My Mother. It’s a colorful film with a compelling cast of character driven by a feminine perspective. Like with Volver and All About My Mother , it doesn’t work for me on a narrative level. But like the aforementioned films, Almodóvar’s ability to structure shots with so much depth is enough to make the film more than its plot lets on. Thematically, the film fits right in with Almodóvar’s oeuvre as a film that sees women trying to overcome masculine restraints. With melodrama to spare, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown can be filed under films that I admire, though don’t embrace.

Rating: 6/10

A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001) Directed by Steven Spielberg

At two and a half hours, A.I. Artificial Intelligence is a perplexing feature. Its opening hour is paced awkwardly. On one level, it bares the sort of visual composition of a Stanley Kubrick film. But with its rapid cuts and moving camera, these images connect under the basic principles of Spielberg’s technique. It’s jarring at first, but as the film progresses, you really do become immersed in the philosophy and ideas that the film provokes. And the density of its material is surprising – there’s a lot to mull over during and after the picture. Among Kubrick’s oeuvre, it’s ranks with 2001: A Space Odyssey in its philosophical musings. But in Spielberg’s hands, he manages to streamline the narrative to make it an incredibly accessible picture. While I’ve often been critical of Spielberg’s work, his ability to tell a simple and compelling story in a straightforward manner is his strongest asset. The problem is that a lot of his stories are straightforward to begin with. It’s only with films where he deals with broader material, particularly Jaws and Close Encounter of the Third Kind, is he able to really impress me.

The film is not without its flaws. The opening and closing sequences, which seem to be the most scrutinized by reviewers, stand as my favorite scenes in the picture. It’s odd how these sequences were initially noted as the Spielbergian influences on the picture, yet they strike me as the sort of decisions that Kubrick would have made. A scene involving Haley Joel Osment laughing at a dinner table felt too abstract for someone like Spielberg to have come up with on his own. It’s the middle sections that I have the most trouble with, as the film’s (well, Spielberg’s) reliance on special effects strike didn’t connect with me. Despite that issue, I found the picture to be a truly refined piece of filmmaking. Labeled as a Kubrick work, it’s about a mid-tier effort. But as a Spielberg effort, this dark, daring, and contemplative picture is his finest film to date.

Rating: 8/10

Home Movies #1

Since I’ve shifted my blog to account for my contemporary cinema viewings, I’ve neglected to write about the many films I’ve seen at home. And well, there have been a lot of them. Given that these early months tend to leave a lot to be desired in the cinema, I figured I could introduce a new column that focuses solely on my at-home viewings. I won’t delve too deeply into any particular picture like I do with my Essential Series column, instead I’m just offering a little snip it of the sorts of films I’m checking out nowadays.

Batman Returns (1992) Directed by Tim Burton

I’ve been nerding it up lately, as I’ve been catching up with the early nineties animated Batman cartoon and reading some graphic novels in preparation for The Dark Knight Rises. The thing is that I’m not much of a fan of any of the feature films. Batman (1989) is so deeply rooted in its 80s aesthetic that it’s comical to see a picture age so poorly. The Joel Schumacher films, Batman Forever (1995) and Batman and Robin (1997), inhabit the “it’s so bad, it’s good” cinematic landscape. And while I like the Christopher Nolan films, Batman Begins (2005) and The Dark Knight (2008), their strict adherence to seriousness can become problematic for films based on a comic. If there’s any singular picture that balances the comic elements associated with Batman with the brooding nature that writer Frank Miller took with the character in The Dark Knight Returns, it’d be Tim Burton’s Batman Returns.

Here’s a film that understands the outlandish comic nature associated with Gotham City, its heroes, and its villains. Rich with Burton’s sense of visual flare, Batman Returns encapsulates the tragic titular character with both his comic and gothic background. And unlike Burton’s first Batman feature, Returns manages to prevent itself from ever becoming too dated.    Returns also highlights two of the best performances in any Batman picture, as Christopher Walken and especially Michelle Pfeiffer spar in acting clinics. The film does have some narrative kinks that seem to plague most of the Batman films particularly given that the hero’s lacking charismatic quality equates to his villains overwhelming screen time. But still, as far as I’m concerned, Batman Returns remains the best film in the franchise.

Rating: 7/10

The Invisible Man (1933) Directed by James Whale 

In conjunction with my nerding it up with Batman, I’ve also been exploring a pretty big cinematic blind spot: films of the 1930s. My luck has been less than encouraging, as I’ve found it difficult to find pictures that I can really take to from the era. And it’s not that I’m entirely averse to the decade, as F.W. Murnau’s City Girl, Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights and Modern Times stand out as some of my favorite films ever. After checking out James Whale’s 1931 effort with Frankenstein, I was less than enthused to check out his work. Thankfully, his work in The Invisible Man was a markable improvement.

The Invisible Man works well given its time period, as a lot of the effects on display are truly impressive for a film made in the 30s. But beyond that, the picture manages to weave a narrative that is deliberately obtuse. We’re introduced to an obscure character from the onset, with the narrative unraveling very delicately. There’s something so incredibly menacing about the central character as well, an aspect that was surprisingly absent in Frankenstein. The Invisible Man isn’t the most well-directed or well-acted of films, but it does have a peculiar narrative framework that makes it particularly enjoyable.

Rating: 7/10

I Was Born, But… (1932) Directed by Yasujirô Ozu

It’s funny how, as I’m about to give up on really finding anything amazing from the decade, I stumble upon this picture. I Was Born, But… comes at just the right time. It’s a picture that may come across as slight on first glance, but as it unfolds, the subtle development and stylistic framework of its narrative makes for a very profound experience.

From its onset, I Was Born, But… seems content with acknowledging the childhood experience. Two children move with their mother and father to a suburb. They deal with bullies and school at first, but are eventually accepted by their peers. Their father works in a office. Their mother tends to the home. In a way, it may not initially evoke profundity, but Ozu delicately examines the transition from childhood to adulthood. Simple shots where the children are at school, sitting at their desks, is followed by cuts to the father at his office.

This all comes to a head when the world of children and the world of adults interact. The children watch their father kiss up to his boss. For a child who sees the world through a lens where their parents are superior, it comes as a true shock to see their father in a subordinate position. This complicates and strains their relationships – their father taught them to work hard like him, but has working hard really paid off?

I can’t directly recall a film that so beautifully addressees the social fabric of the world with such timeliness. It’s truly a universal narrative, whereupon socioeconomic status, brotherhood, and familial bonds intersect in an organic way. While the picture has encouraged me with keeping my pursuit of watching films from the 1930s, I Was Born, But… has got me more interested in exploring another one of my cinematic blinds spots – Ozu’s filmography.

Rating: 10/10