Sometimes we watch stuff that we want to talk just a little bit about, not a full review worth. These are those films. If any of the films reviewed are available on Netflix Instant Watch (US or Canada) or HuluPlus (US only), we’ll note that by putting a direct link below the capsule.
1979 USSR. Director: Andrei Tarkovsky. Starring: Alisa Freyndlikh, Aleksandr Kaydanovskiy, Anatoliy Solonitsyn.
Stalker asks the big questions by asking why we ask the big questions. A film this dry and humourless (but ultimately, quite hilarious) could only be made in Russia. It bleakly proposes that art, science and religion are all male dodges to responsibilities at home, which I guess questions the very nature of why the film itself exists. I’d say this is ripe for a SCTV or Monty Python parody, but I guess, The Meaning of Life kinda covers some of the bases. Ultimately, it’s doom and gloom (pre-Chernobyl in the same way Fight Club is pre-9/11) premise says to me, “It’s not the end of the world, it’s just the end of the fuckin’ day.” (Apologies to Tony Burgess, and Pontypool for that…)
2003 USA. Director: Coen Brothers. Starring: George Clooney, Catherine Zeta-Jones.
Some would classify Intolerable Cruelty as a minor Coen Brothers work and I suppose that actually would be accurate. But as often stated, lesser Coen Brothers is better than 90% of the shit out there. And this movie is solid solid solid. Even with all the cliche tropes of conventional movie making (slow claps, fingers on the lips, etc.) the Coens somehow manage to make it their own and everything in here is goofy fun with pure magic backing it up. George Clooney recently gave the “performance of a lifetime” in The Descendants, but damn if his turns in Coen films aren’t right on the heels of that performance. He knows exactly how to ham it up for the camera and he is outright hilarious here. All of the side characters are of almost equal charm and hilarity – gotta love Billy-Bob as the paper-eating oil man. The story feels predictable but mysterious at the same time and every moment feels fresh and new – even though you’ve seen it before. The Coens have stuck with the same DP and set decorator since Miller’s Crossing, and even though this one is a bit brighter and glossier than their other works, these attributes of the movie stand tall. In short, fantastic Friday night date movie that everyone should love. If you don’t love it, we’re divorced.
Le Cercle Rouge
1970 France. Director: Jean-Pierre Melville. Starring: Alain Delon, Bourvil, Gian Maria Volonté.
Not oozing quite as much cool as the other Melville film I’ve seen (Le Samurai), but it still works on many levels. Though Delon still exhudes cool, he’s a little corny with that fake mustache. I also didn’t care too much for the final 15 minutes or so and thought it kind of ram-shackled together and didn’t even make a whole lot of sense at first glance. Still, the first hour or so is filled to the brim with spectacular and simply “cool” looking shots. The heist itself is pretty riveting and fascinating to watch as almost the whole thing is done in complete silence. An enjoyable heist film that has lots going for it, but I wasn’t quite as blown away by it as I had hoped.
1966. Director: Ingmar Bergman. Starring: Liv Ullmann, Bibi Anderson.
My introduction to Ingmar Bergman came by way of one of his more experimental films: Persona. In retrospect, it is unfortunate that I started with this film as it distorted my view of Bergman for over a decade; I could not shake the association of his name with the kind of pretentious filmmaking styles that pops up in perfume commercials. Eventually I found the other Bergman, the high dramatist Bergman, who goes for the jugular in his attempt to ferret out the innermost desires plaguing human beings. This Bergman I love. It had been over a decade since I last watched Persona, and seeing it again, I realize how better equipped and tolerant I have become of unconventional storytelling and abstract stylistics turns. In the interim, I have come to embrace the earnest efforts of Malick and Lynch, and Bergman (in Persona at least) is playing in that same sandbox; in fact, watching Persona this time I was struck by how clearly it was an inspiration for David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr, not only because of the similar stories (psychosis blurring the divisions between two women, one statuesque supermodel actress, the other innocent short-haired blonde) but even shots are reminiscent. I think this is even carried over in INLAND EMPIRE (the rabbits-in-suits set feels a lot like the hospital room set that Liv Ullmann stands ominously in watching the tv). Persona is still not one of my favorite Bergman films but I do now appreciate it a great deal. The extended dialogue scenes with Bibi Anderson just losing herself in confession as Liv Ullmann looks stoically on are mesmerizing to watch. I still find some of the book-end elements a bit exhausting but there is some powerful interactions between the two characters in the middle of it to warrant four stars.
2011 USA. Director: Todd Haynes. Starring: Kate Winslet, Guy Pearce, Evan Rachel Wood.
This was a very strange mini-series, and one I find almost impossible to pinpoint a star rating for because in the ways it works, it works phenomenally (visually the entire five hours are a work of art), but in the ways it falls flat, it really falls flat (unsatisfying story, virtually no character development). It has stuck in my head though, when the tragedy finally, finally happens it is suitably uncomfortable and jarring. But so much of the series is rich people being rich people, and in no rush to tell a story, just bask in the beauty Haynes and the cinematographer can piece together. The central character, Mildred Pierce, is a hard character to feel for as the series develops, but I feel that you are supposed to. The relationship between her and her daughter, Vida, is fascinating in a kind of We Need to Talk About Kevin bad parenting experience way, but I just wish there were more peaks and valleys and not this one-note message.
2005 USA. Director: Tony Scott. Starring: Keira Knightley, Mickey Rourke, Edgar Ramirez.
The kind of awful that could put me off films altogether.
The Ballad of Narayama
1983 Japan. Director: Shôhei Imamura. Starring: Ken Ogata, Sumiko Sakamoto, Tonpei Hidari.
A cultural manifesto, of sorts, The Ballad of Narayama touches upon the horrors of desperation, and the toll that need to be strong and hardy takes on the human condition. While it is not quite a survival of the fittest tale, it does serve as a revelation with respect to what must be done in order to preserve both oneself and one’s family. The film is, in short, oftentimes quite terrifying. However, it is as beautiful as it is cruel, and, at times, quite hopeful. The pacing is a bit lackadaisical at times, and meandering at others, but once Immamura hits his stride the film’s rising action is remarkable – and the climax is nothing short of breathtaking.
1957 USA. Director: Samuel Fuller. Starring: Barbara Stanwyck, Barry Sullivan, Dean Jagger.
Forty Guns is perhaps the most surreal, theatrical Western that I have ever had the pleasure of viewing. In actuality, it is only truly distinguished from film noir by its setting, as well as Fuller’s utilization of most of the well-known trappings associated with Westerns. At its core, Forty Guns is something of an examination of sexuality (on the strength of Stanwyck’s greatest performance), but it also relies heavily on hectic deviations from the expected. That may not appear to be a true characteristic, but it is an idiosyncrasy without which the film would not exist. It is a film that cannot be encapsulated by any one theme or standard, yet it is endlessly entertaining and incredibly profound. I highly recommend this for most anyone, particularly fans of Westerns and surrealism … and, perhaps, satire, as it would not surprise me if Fuller was merely attempting to pull a fast one over the viewer.