Friday, February 25, 2011

The Road to Mandalay

Manderlay: Sequel to Dogville, and I actually liked it better than the first film. It's a story about a rich white woman who encouters a plantation where the slaves have apparently not been told about the Emancipation Proclamation, and sets about trying to turn it into a collective farm. The results, firstly, skewer white liberal reformist attitudes (as Grace's efforts bear fruit in some areas, but lead to starvation and death in others, and she is ultimately forced to confront the uncomfortable similarity between herself and the plantation's former owners as regards their relationship with the black workers), and secondly, poses deeper, Enlightenment-philosophy-style questions about the complicated relationship between individual freedom/rights, collective freedom/rights and the law.

The Roaring Twenties: Justifiedly famous James Cagney gangster-picture with a political message: made in 1939, the film pins the blame for the rise of gang activity in the 1920s on, firstly, America's involvement in WWI; secondly, the government's failure to provide for the returning soldiers in its aftermath; and, thirdly, the enactment of prohibition laws. Cagney plays a young man who returns from the war to find all jobs taken, but the criminal underworld open to employment for intelligent young men with mad gun-wielding skillz. The plot which develops also has a strong moral message, as the "good," "innocent"-seeming characters are actually responsible for some of the most calculated acts of amorality in the story, while Cagney's character, despite being a criminal, also tries to do what's right by his friends and girlfriend. A clear influence on Boardwalk Empire.

Movie count for 2011: 33

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Going Places

Run Fatboy Run: Better-than-expected Simon Pegg comedy, falling somewhere between the brilliance of Shaun of the Dead and the blatant catering to the Americans of How To Lose Friends and Irritate People. Pegg plays his stock character of the drifting underachieving male who is galvanized into action-- in this case, he resolves to run a thinly-disguised London Marathon (renamed the Nike River Run, presumably for product placement purposes) in order to win his estranged ex-girlfriend and the mother of his child back from an evil American financier. Although it's set in London it feels a bit aimed at the American market (although the American character is the baddie, it takes place in tourist-London rather than real London, and it carefully contains no cultural references that Americans are unlikely to get), but despite that it's cute and feelgood, and has two supporting characters, played by Dylan Moeran and Harish Patel, who have all the good lines.

Raising Arizona: Classic Cohen Brothers comedy about a Southern petty criminal who resolves to fly straight after marrying a policewoman, but, when they learn they can't have children, the couple find themselves drawn into crime through hatching a mad plot to kidnap one. My Name is Earl appears to have ripped off quite a lot from it (the protagonist even has a shaggy haircut, moustache, predilection for loud shirts, and idiot-savant sidekick, and narrates the whole thing in the same perplexed-but-dry tone as Jason Lee), though it also has a distinctly magic-realist aspect in the protagonist's prophetic dreams and the presence of a biker who represents the protagonist's shadow-self made real, and it also features a bank-heist subplot which views like a dry run for O Brother, Where Art Thou?

Syriana: Complicated film interweaving a series of seemingly disparate, but actually interconnected, stories revolving around the merger of two oil companies to take over a drilling operation in an unnamed Emirate, and the power struggle between the Emir's sons, both of which are shadowed and influenced by forces within the American government and business community. It's a story with no good or bad guys: Alexander Siddig's reforming prince is determined to help his country modernise and realise its potential outside of American control, but is a thoroughly unpleasant type with al-Quaeda connections, while George Clooney's sympathetic CIA agent engages in assassination attempts without so much as a moral qualm, the sweet, family-oriented young Pakistani immigrant workers are being groomed as suicide troops by their smiling and earnest imam, and there is a distinct question as to whether Matt Damon's international economist really is, as his estranged wife contends, profiting over his son's accidental death at a party thrown by the Emir. It's the sort of film Edge of Darkness should have been.

Young Frankenstein: Mel Brooks comedy made around the same time as Blazing Saddles, with some of the same people and a similar starting point, sending up the foibles and biases of the Universal horror films of the 1930s rather than Westerns. Very funny, but it doesn't have the same biting social commentary as Blazing Saddles-- although it does send up the sexual/gender subtext of horror films by having a priapic Frankenstein's Monster in pursuit of an ostensibly-fridgid, actually-rapacious woman, that side of it doesn't really come in until quite late in the story, and the complexities of sexuality in the genre, such as the gay subtexts that some have noted in James Whale's horror films, never really get explored. Perhaps it was a bit too early for all that. More puzzlingly given the team involved, the antisemitism angle seems to mostly get passed over. Still, lots of fun to be had, and see if you can Spot Gene Hackman.

Movie count for 2011: 31

Friday, February 18, 2011

Napoleon complex

Napoleon Dynamite: Strangely funny, almost plotless comedy about an irritating teenager (he actually makes one sympathise with the school bullies) living in a small town which appears to be stuck in the mid-eighties, with a bizarre collection of friends and relatives. A surreal, funny and non-preachy take on the traditional teen-movie themes of being true to oneself and finding one's calling in life; Napoleon does both, but the way he does it is so off-the-wall you might not realise he has.

Movie count for 2010: 27

Two True

True Grit (1969): Intense Western about a fourteen-year-old girl who hires a bounty hunter to seek revenge on her father's murderer, with a Texas Ranger who also has an interest in getting his hands on said murderer joining them on the hunt. The story explores the complicated nuances of interaction between the characters on their journey, and manages to portray the girl's courage without resorting to patronizing her. My only real complaints are that, firstly, the woman playing the girl is in her early twenties, and it shows, and secondly, that the climax somewhat undoes the portrayal of her as intelligent, brave and logic-driven by having her do something pretty unbelievably stupid when confronted with a rattlesnake.

True Grit (2011): Similar to the first version in many ways (some dialogue was even identical), mainly differing in making LaBoeuf, the Ranger, a more complex and nuanced character, and in giving the story a darker, eerier tone. This is accomplished, first, by setting the action in winter, giving us grim dark skies and occasional snow to contrast with the original's bright skies and lovely landscapes, second, by peopling the hinterland with strange, random people and unexplained events, and third, giving the ending a tragic, downbeat tone which shows how everyone involved in the story paid the price for their decisions and actions. It all feels much less like a traditional Western, and more like Heart of Darkness.

The remake also gets points for casting a real fourteen-year-old, and for having a more believable rattlesnake scene.

Movie count for 2011: 26

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Boldly going

Star Trek III: The Search for Spock: 101 minutes of Kirk and his crew digging themselves out of a hole.

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home: is basically Galactia 1980 done right-- people from the future time-travel back to California in the Eighties in an invisible spaceship, hook up with a daffy girl local, hand out formulae for miracle products, and engage in funny scenarios due to their failure to understand local culture, only in this movie the characters are likeable, the situations and their attempts to get out of them uncontrived. Also, after the Captain Ahab theme of Star Trek II, it's nice to have a movie from the point of view of the whale. The only problem is the last five minutes when all the charges against the crew are dropped, Kirk busted back to Captain, a new Enterprise is built (funny, the Federation were scrapping it just one film ago) and everyone flies off into the sunset with the reset button firmly pressed.

Star Trek V: The Final Frontier: Reportedly the film which nearly scuppered the franchise, and viewing like a catalogue of everything not to do in a Star Trek movie. Don’t use “The Way to Eden” as your reference point, don’t introduce random relatives for Spock, don’t have cutesy scenes of Kirk, Spock and McCoy singing around a campfire, don’t have knockoffs of the Star Wars cantina sequence… and if you’re going to have a charismatic preacher as your antagonist, then please, make his message actually interesting and not some kind of Californian encounter-group shibboleth about acknowledging your pain and having a group hug. Also, I’m all for celebrating the sensuality of the older woman, but having Nichelle Nichols do a striptease really doesn’t fall into that category.

Star Trek VI: Witty and intelligent finale to the original movie series, building on the fact that the original series was basically a metaphor for Cold War politics and doing the collapse of Communism in space, complete with jokes about Fukuyama’s “the end of history” comment and a space-Chernobyl incident. Some complain about the classical misquotations scattered throughout, but for me they worked; it starts out as the Klingons apparently misunderstanding Shakespeare, then morphs to the Klingons actually doing a kind of postmodern reinterpretation of Shakespearian themes, and before long Spock, Chekhov and even Kirk are getting in on the postmodern action, with Spock claiming Sherlock Holmes as a literal ancestor, and Kirk acknowledging his Peter Pan syndrome with a quote from J.M. Barrie. Kim Cattrall guest stars as a Vulcan calculated to induce ponn farr in anything within a fifty-mile radius.

Movie count for 2011: 24

Mad Dogs and Teenagers

Dogville: Tragic reflection on the bad side of human nature by Lars von Trier. Nicole Kidman plays a fugitive from gangsters who hides out in a small mountain town, paying back the villagers by helping them out with their work; the villagers, faced with mounting pressure to turn her in on one side, and the temptation of having a ready source of labour on the other, gradually ratchet up the exploitation until it turns into outright abuse. The ending turns the whole thing into a philosophical discussion on the nature of forgiveness which is not dissimilar to that in Bad Lieutenant, but taking the opposite narrative tack: because the person called on to forgive would, in the same situation, have acted no differently to the person they are asked to forgive, they cannot, in the end, do so.

Also, what is it with Scandinavian directors and dogs?

You Don’t Know Jack: Biopic of euthanasist Jack Kevorkian, which is both sympathetic to Kevorkian’s initial idealistic reasons for assisting the suicide of the terminally ill and/or incurably disabled, but also paints his final trial and conviction for murder as the result of his being emotionally traumatised by assisting at all these deaths until, as the trial judge states, he wanted to be stopped.

Ferris Bueller’s Day Off: Having managed to get through the 1980s without seeing this, I thought it was time to give it a go. It turned out to be a surprisingly witty and accessible teen movie, full of well-timed physical comedy, whose ultimate message is: be true to yourself, and don’t obsess about what other people do or think.

Movie Count for 2011: 20

Friday, February 11, 2011

Eye of the Beholder

Black Beauty (1971): The original book was an early animal-rights polemic, told through the picaresque journey of a horse as he goes from a pleasant rural life on a country estate to a harder life as a London cabhorse, before finally being rescued when close to death from abuse. The film loses most of this thematic progression, instead giving us an adventure series and inserting sequences where, for instance, the eponymous horse spends a while with the biggest set of gypsy stereotypes this side of a Channel 4 reality programme, as a circus horse on the Continent (I'm not making this up), and as a warhorse in Afghanistan, leaving a trail of corpses in his wake (again, not kidding-- he's directly responsible for at least two deaths even before going to the Hindu Kush). This vignette-style treatment also leads to interesting narrative strands being violently cut off (what, for instance, will happen when the girlfriend of Beauty's soldier owner finds out that her father's needling the lad into going off to war lead directly to his brutal death in combat? We never learn). The horses are beautiful, the foals are cute and the landscapes dramatic, and the ending does get somewhere close to the bittersweet tone of the novel (despite a shoehorned-in and pointless cameo for Anna Sewell), but it's not really worth setting the Skybox for.

Movie count for 2011: 17

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Crimson faced

The Crimson Kimono: Not-very-good late-fifties noir-lite B-pic; a stripper who had been planning a Japanese-themed act is killed, an artist who did a painting of her is threatened, the team of police detectives assigned to the case (one European-American, one Japanese-American) both fall for the artist, and it all ends with the world's slowest high-speed chase and the world's most laboured apology. Interesting mainly for its portrayal of Japanese-American (and to a lesser extent Korean-American) culture: at a time when Asians tend to get stereotyped as evil inscrutables or accented comedy-figures, the Japanese characters here are portrayed matter-of-factly as sportsmen, parents, teachers and war heroes (the Korean War naturally-- WWII remains the elephant in the room), and likewise their culture is not something impenetrable by Caucasians (e.g. the Caucasian detective is a kendo enthusiast). The religious diversity of such communities is also unproblematically portrayed (the minor characters include a Japanese Buddhist priest and a Korean Catholic nun). At the end, too, the Japanese detective gets the (Caucasian) girl. It's just a shame this couldn't have happened in a better movie.

Movie count for 2010: 16

Monday, February 07, 2011

Life lessons

Le Diner des Cons: The diner in question is a supper party where the participants are all supposed to bring along an idiot; the amoral protagonist finds a prize one, who turns out to be a sort of demented and less-likeable Monsieur Hulot. The escalating series of resulting hilarious disasters teaches him some painful but true lessons about compassion, and very possibly gets him a tax audit.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan: Still the best of the Star Trek films, wisely eschewing the Enterprise-fetishism of last outing in favour of a story about learning to accept bitter truths. Kirk is portrayed as a man perpetually afraid of confronting his own aging and death, and having to do so over the course of the film, ending up sadder but wiser. Khan, meanwhile, has a contrasting story as a man unable to let go of his insane desire for revenge on Kirk, and as such winds up wasting his own and his followers' lives.

Hoax: Based-on-a-true-story film about Clifford Irving's famous faked "autobiography" of Howard Hughes. Although played for comedy-drama and disowned by Irving himself, the film does raise the question of what is truth: if one can write a fiction indistinguishable from reality, does this make it true? Worth watching in a double bill with F for Fake.

Movie Count for 2011: 15

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Not so edgy

Edge of Darkness: Takes an intelligent, paranoid, gripping tale of corruption in business and government, and turns it into a banal whistleblowing thriller. So banal, in fact, that I really don't want to waste any more time reviewing it than I have to. Suffice it to say that it's a good thing that it seems to have more or less sunk without trace.

Movie count for 2010: 12 (don't worry, I've got a Tati box set, two Kurosawas and Le Diner des Cons somewhere about the house, so there is much better to come)