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.
There Will Be Blood
2007 USA. Director: Paul Thomas Anderson. Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Paul Dano, Dylan Freasier, Ciaran Hinds.
A beautiful looking but otherwise empty movie experience that has nothing much to say about anything, and this, irrespective of the glowing praise by the likes of Tarantino. Everything goes down just as one would expect, without much of a fight, just aimlessly going through the motions of belittling Church and Commerce, and guess what, money doesn’t buy you happiness. I am a big fan of Paul Thomas Anderson but frankly the two stars I am giving this have more to do with Johnny Greenwood’s killer score and Daniel Day-Lewis’ grizzled performance. Everything else is as plain as the desert landscape this story is set against. Scholarly papers have been written about the choice use of camp in the final scene, to me it still just feels like a movie desperate to do something, anything to seem special.
2011 Iran. Director: Asghar Farhadi. Starring: Leila Hatami, Kimia Hosseini, Merila Zarei.
Ego. Shame. Fear. Guilt. All are underscored here insofar as problems can spiral out of control when people push each other to the limit. Even moreso, A Separation shows the true ineffectualness of any bureaucratic legal body to sort out problems that are best suited to dramatization. Thus, we are armed with the God’s Eye view, and A SEPARATION appeals to logic, empathy, and yes, judgement. It’s the Iranian version of THE SWEET HEREAFTER, in its own way, and damn if that isn’t a compliment of the highest order. I had a plethora of reactions to the film and all of them, I believe, were earned. That is to say: the film doesn’t ‘cheat’ (sorry for opening a can of worms) by going all Lars Von Trier with its plot points. And that ending is perfect.
Murder, My Sweet
1944 USA. Director: Edward Dmytryk. Starring: Dick Powell, Claire Trevor, Anne Shirley.
It is somewhat difficult to explain what sets Murder, My Sweet apart from the run-of-the-mill Noir of the 1940s, as it fell prey to many of the trappings of the era. The plot is all over the place, and oftentimes as difficult to follow as the director’s surname is to spell. With the exception of Dick Powell and (to an extent) Anne Shirley, the characters are entirely one-dimensional and somewhat uninteresting. And, for about seventy-five percent of the film, the cinematography and general feel of the characters and settings are decidedly generic. From there, however, there are two tremendous leaps to be taken forward. Powell is, to me, the single best example of the private eye archetype that I have ever enjoyed – sorry, Mr. Bogart. He is a very complex character, blending humor, cynicism, morality, and general badassery into what may be my favorite Noir character … ever. Beyond Powell’s brilliance lay the other distinguishing factor, on the strength of Dmytryk and cinematographer Harry Wild. While the majority of the film may not be groundbreaking in terms of visuals, the remainder plunges the viewer into the dark and gritty feel of L.A. at night in an almost unprecedented manner. The viewer is rarely granted a glimpse of daylight, and is instead relegated in dark corners, gloomy bars, and dingy homes. It is almost heartbreaking how close Murder, My Sweet is to being my absolute favorite Noir…
The Sunset Limited
2011 USA. Director: Tommy Lee Jones. Starring: Samuel L. Jackson, Tommy Lee Jones.
A great one room drama taking place over the course of 90 minutes (real time), but with enough religious/social debate to last for days. Truly not a whole lot in here that I haven’t pondered or discussed with others before, but the characters made the questions and answers that much more intriguing understanding their back stories. For a tiny one room set, Jones and set designer are really able to open up the space to movement and depth. Equally interesting was all of the ambient sounds and makeshift score coming through the walls at opportune moments. On top of this, you’d think that the lighting would be one note and stagnant. Nothing could be further from the truth, lighting changes and textures abound… subtly. My only beef would be some of the poetic/wrote dialogue near the end and the constant, “I should leave” garbage. But that’s pretty nit-picky stuff. Two actors at the top of their game here in an incredibly compelling and easy watch. 90 minutes seems to go by in about 15. Mesmerizing and amazing.
2000 USA. Director: Mark Singer.
An interesting, rough around the edges look at a small group of people living on the edge. Specifically, the a small homeless that have built their own small community inside a Subway tunnel in Harlem. You get a sporadic snapshot of what they do with their days above ground and how they manage their privacy, cooking and other human necessities down below in the dark. The films subject is handled with taste and dignity. The film is a bit of hands-on activism, as well. The filmmakers got several of the people into subsidized housing, while the subjects of the film did the lighting and the camera work during production. The most curious thing is that it was made in 1999-2000, but since it uses a peculiar Kodak B&W stock, it feels like NYC in the early 1970s, but the underground stuff has a rough poetry to both the visual look and the rough dialogue.
Le Quattro Volte (a.k.a. The Four Times)
2010 Italy/Germany/Switzerland. Director: Michelangelo Frammartino. Starring: Giuseppe Fuda, Bruno Timpano and Nazareno Timpano.
Kind of like Tree of Life meets The Artist (only a little better than both perhaps), Le Quattro Volte (a.k.a. The Four Times) is a transcendental cinematic poem. It first follows an elderly shepherd as he goes about his business despite his ill-health, then moves on to track the kid of one of his goats, then a great tree we come across and finally the charcoal and smoke which results from it’s destruction. At first glances, this dialogue and narrative-free film looks to be pretentious cinematic wankery, but if you’re willing to let it wash over you it is astounding. It’s not necessarily ‘telling’ the audience anything, but merely observing it’s subjects and letting those watching fill in the gaps and take from it what they will in terms of man’s link to nature and spirituality. Very little happens and there is no music, but I couldn’t tear my eyes or ears away from it. It looks stunning (it demands to be seen on Blu-Ray or at a theatre) and the subtle, quiet soundtrack is curiously spellbinding. It’s also surprisingly funny and poignant at times. High Art with a capital ‘A’ it may seem to be, but I found it refreshingly simple, beautiful and transcendent.
1941 USA. Director: Michael Powell. Starring: Leslie Howard, Laurence Olivier, Anton Walbrook, Raymond Massey.
At its core, 49th Parallel a propagandist’s wet dream. Powell and frequent collaborator/writer Emeric Pressberger crafted a film that decries the doctrine of Nazism and touts the merits of Western Democracy (or, perhaps, non-Nazism in general) … yet managed to present such clear-cut messages with subtlety and nuance. Much of this assuredly rests in the charm of the heavyweight cast, who manage to solicit a great deal of sympathy without quite earning the viewer’s support, but it is difficult to deflect praise away from the director and writer without feeling a bit disingenuous. The camaraderie of the marooned Nazi submariners meandering through the Canadian countryside is palpable and believable, the caricatures of the ‘native’ Canadians are delightful, and the ambiguous portrayal of American sensibilities is simply masterful. In the ephemera, the editing of David Lean and Ralph Vaughan Williams’ atmospheric score are equal parts integral and understated. And in the end, and for the life of me, I will never understand how the duo of Powell and Pressberger managed to present such a masterful film with an unambiguous message, without the heavy-handedness one would expect.
A Chorus Line
1985 USA. Director: Richard Attenborough. Starring: Michael Douglas, Audrey Landers, Janet Jones.
I quite enjoyed the documentary from a few years ago called Every Little Step that focused on the casting process for a revival of A Chorus Line. Not only did the stories of the dancers keep me interested, but so did the stories of the characters within the play. The songs seemed catchy, the dance pieces looked creative and I liked the concept of building the play around the dancers’ individual stories. I finally got around to watching the film version from 25 years ago and within 30 minutes or so was checking IMDB to make sure that I hadn’t slipped a memory disc and picked the wrong musical. The characters were annoying, the songs dull and inept (except for the two obvious standouts “At The Ballet” and “One” – how the hell did “Surprise, Surprise” get an Oscar Nomination?) and everything was completely forced. Granted, filming something meant for the stage is tricky business – what comes across as forced on film can be far more successful on stage as the performers project in broad terms to the audience. There are a few scattered numbers where Attenborough brings some needed flair with lighting, staging and framing, but otherwise the whole thing became quite grating. It’s hampered by lackluster casting – good dancers, but hammy actors for the most part – dragged further down by the sub plot of the director’s (Michael Douglas) old flame showing up for the auditions and then totally sinks when the emotional group-bonding disaster strikes one of the dancers. I’m feeling less fondness for that documentary due to having watched this.