Movie Roundup: Three Day Weekend Edition

Make Way For Tomorrow – One of the most tear-inducing movies I’ve ever seen, extremely sad, but never depressing, if that’s a distinction that makes sense. The theme is essentially the same as Tokyo Story, apparently Ozu’s screenwriter, Kôgo Noda, was a fan of the film, though reportedly Ozu himself had not seen it. An elderly couple (the wonderful Victor Moore and Beulah Bondi) come to realize that their kids don’t want them around when they’re forced to move in with them after losing their house. They’re separated by circumstance (none of the kids have room for the both of them), and eventually by a continent. It’s never sentimental and never melodramatic, and Moore and Bondi break your heart as they accept their failures and warm it with the depth of the joy they find in each other. I don’t know if it’s better than the Ozu film, but it’s just as perfect. The #1 film of 1937, ahead of The Awful Truth, also directed by the great Leo McCarey.

Dear Zachary – A deeply unpleasant film to watch, for a variety of reasons. First, and most obviously is the plot, in which the filmmaker chronicles the tragic circumstances around his friend’s murder and the custody battle the murdered friend’s parents fought with the accused murderer. This part of the story is both depressing as hell and strains harder to pull your tears than anything I’ve seen in awhile. Second is the filmmaking style: much of the film is made up of home movies, and the original material isn’t much more interesting to look at, but that’s mostly OK. The editing and soundtrack are hyperactively cut together, constantly underlining and all capping every emotion the filmmaker wants you to feel (and those emotions are very black and white: everyone in the film is great except for the villain, who is the devil or the government, whose side of the story (whatever it is) remains untold). Finally, the film simply made me feel very uncomfortable, not so much because it’s “misery porn”, but because of the voyeurism of it all. It felt like an overdose of reality TV, or those tragic memoirs that get featured on Oprah or Dr. Phil or something. I find that kind of thing deeply unsettling, which perhaps makes me strange, but I don’t want to see strangers’ home movies and I don’t want to read their diaries. If the film was 15 minutes long, say a story on 60 Minutes or something, I probably wouldn’t have had that objection to it. Or if it was a fictional story, I certainly wouldn’t have. I don’t quite understand why that is. Perhaps it has to do with the specificity and intimacy of the storytelling preventing the kind of abstraction or generalization or distance that allows me to relate comfortably to the narrative. The #62 film of 2008.

Movie Roundup: Pre-Oscar Catch-Up Edition

Food, Inc – Pretty much what you expect it to be. Though, it was nice to see it focus on the real bad guy in this area, corporate capitalism, as opposed to blaming meat-eaters or poor people who can’t afford to eat better than fast food. The only real revelation was the guy who runs an organic farm. He, and his suspenders, were really cool. Otherwise it’s just a better-looking version of those Robert Greenwald lefty documentaries.

The Cove – Same with this doc, it makes an unassailably correct argument, though manages to only include the other side in order to knock it down. The story of Ric Barry’s personal feelings of complicity in the dolphin craze, and his feelings of responsibility for it is quite moving, but the movie never feels like we’re getting the whole story of just what he’s done to get himself so ostracized. I suspect that a big part of the reason why issues like this have trouble getting addressed is because the people doing the arguing allow themselves to be so easily caricatured as hippie loons. This film does little to counter that idea.

District 9 – A fine action film, notably mostly for its effectiveness on such a relatively low budget. Its vaunted social commentary amounts to little more than “hey these aliens in South Africa live in slums! In South Africa!” and the framing device of documentary-style interviews and found footage is undercut by so many scenes which aren’t shot in that style. Compared with last year’s low-budget action film, Cloverfield, District 9 falls short in its unwillingness to stick to the conceit it marks out for itself. Instead of increasing the immediacy of the action, it instead just feels like a (oft-used) gimmick.

Movie Roundup: I Haven’t Skied in 25 Years, but that Downhill Course Looks Like a Lot of Fun Edition

(500) Days of Summer – A very good romantic comedy that’s a little too much indebted to every other romantic comedy since, well, The Graduate, but still plenty of fun. Joseph Gordon Leavitt sorts through his recently ended relationship with Zooey Deschanel, and the film flits back and forth through time in a wholly unnecessary manner (like in Eternal Sunshine but less interesting) as he tries to get over the relationship. The romance is effectively comedic and its actually kind of fun playing spot the reference (the film is so infused with Woody Allen films I was sure it was set in New York until a third of the film had gone by and even now I’m not so sure they didn’t film it there and call it Los Angeles). I very much like the end, which is strikingly mature for a contemporary romantic comedy. The whole thing, in fact, feels like a breath of fresh air, unpolluted by the Apatovianity that has dominated the genre for the last five years or so (let alone the hideousness of the ones I can’t manage to stomach the trailers for, which all seem to star Sandra Bullock). I wouldn’t be insulting it to say it’s the Singles or Reality Bites of its era. Not an all-time great film, but perfectly enjoyable.

Dames – If such a thing as a by the numbers Busby Berkeley film is possible, this is it. There’s a slight, but pleasant and occasionally funny plot about a millionaire’s relative conniving to fund a broadway show. Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler do their thing (though Keeler’s tap dancing is sorely neglected). There’s a fine supporting performance from Zasu Pitts as Keeler’s mother. The Berkeley numbers at the end are mostly underwhelming, except for an inspired section Keeler’s image multiplies giving us dozens and dozens of Rubys. The film’s most notable for introducing the song “I Only Have Eyes For You,” which is one of the greatest songs ever and has been stuck in my head for the last week. The #17 film of 1934.

Shutter Island – I don’t know how to talk about the plot without spoiling it, so I’ll try to avoid that. Scorsese does a lot of really cool things to create a tense and unsettling mood, ranging from a dramatic classical, Kubrickian, score to some decent CGI create some wonderful effects with Robert Richardson’s lurid cinematography to editing rhythms that are just a little bit off, a little bit out of continuity. The large cast filled to the brim with excellent actors does an excellent job, and Leonado DiCaprio not only gives his usually very good performance, he’s also finally starting to show his age: for the first time I can recall, I actually thought he was a believable grown-up. The story’s initially unsatisfying, but after a couple of days, I’m thinking it has enough depth that it actually manages to be something a bit better than simply the best Christopher Nolan movie ever.

Anvil! The Story of Anvil – It’s everything it has been reputed to be: a terrific story about a 30 year old metal band keeping their dream alive despite an almost complete lack of success. It’s funny and moving and inspiring, but it somehow feels incomplete. One of the more interesting questions the film raises is why Anvil failed while their peers (the other metal bands of the 80s) succeeded? The film’s too much in love with the band (and that’s totally understandable, these guys are quite lovable) that it doesn’t really want to address anything negative about them or their music. The #39 film of 2008.

Movie Roundup: Hoping Karma Punishes the Colts Edition

You, the Living – I’ve tried a few times in the week since I saw this Roy Andersson film to describe what it’s about and have found myself wholly unequal to that task. It’s 50 short segments about the loosely interconnected lives of people living in an Ikea commercial world (pale, normal- (as opposed to movie-)looking people, flat, shadowless lighting, boxiness). Some of them want desperately to be understood, or communicate, or fall in love, or play music, though they may very well not be interested in applying any effort towards these goals. There are fantasies of houses that move like trains, B-52 bombers that may very well be real and always the sounds of Dixieland Jazz. It’s beautiful, despite its total lack of aestheticism, funny and sad, and always humane. The #4 film of 2007.

Bright Star – Like The Young Victoria, the other romantic biopic of 2009, it’s a better film than you think it would be. Abbie Cornish is very good as the girl in love with John Keats (played by Ben Whishaw, in a performance just as good, if not better, than Cornish’s). There’s not much surprising plot wise: the young lovers are kept apart, first by misunderstanding, then by society, and finally allowed to come together, though we know it’s too late. The exceptional thing about the film is its cinematography; director Jane Campion and DP Greig Fraser (this is the first I’ve seen of his work) apply every kind of light you can think of to their compositions: candlelight, lamplight, bright sunlight, magic hour twilight, icy winter light, smoggy London light, etc etc and the results are stunning. Pictorialism isn’t often a virtue, but here it works as a nice analogue to the romanticism of Keats’s poetry and the ways he explains the experience of it to Cornish as something that should be felt first and foremost through the senses.

Humpday – Raises an interesting question: does a totally stupid premise for a film become less objectionable if, at the end of the film, the characters realize how stupid they’re being? Does it create a bit of poignancy as we witness these characters, who we’ve reviled for their idiocy for much of the previous hour and fifteen minutes, come to the realization that they’ve been wasting their time, that they actually have nothing to say and nothing to show for their lives? Or is it just irritating that we’ve been subjected to this with the filmmakers knowing full-well how lame their central plot is? I’m on the fence. What I’m certain about, though, is that the direction by Seattle’s own Lynn Shelton is infuriating. She frames every shot, every shot, in close up, her hand-held, constantly moving verité camera wedged right up under her actors noses as if she wants us to count their pores. The effect is suffocating. And not in a way that analogizes the stifling nature of modern yuppie life. In a way that makes you want to scream “Stand back!” at the screen. The film does capture Seattle really well though. The houses are clearly Seattle houses. The people, all of them, talk like Seattle people. The festival that gives the main characters their lame idea is a real Seattle thing too. A friend of mine has had films there for the last several festivals. I don’t think he views it as a grand artistic attempt to justify his existence though. He just likes making porn cartoons. He’s weird.

Tulpan – A much better use of the same core concept (not the porn part, the escaping one world and trying for another world part) is this film from Kazakhstan and director Sergei Dvortsevoy. A young man, a former sailor in the Russian (I think) navy is trying to be a shepherd. It’s his dream to live a nomadic existence on the Steppe like his ancestors. He’s living with his sister’s family and trying to learn the business from his brother-in-law, who unfortunately thinks he’s useless. The local landowner won’t give him a flock or yurt of his own until he gets married (it’s a kind of sharecropper system), and the only unmarried girl for hundreds of miles thinks his ears are funny. And for some reason, all the baby sheep are dying. That’s pretty much it for plot, the film immerses you in its environment (dusty, windy and strangely beautiful) and characters (beautiful as well). There are plenty of stunning images (one of an approaching thunderstorm stands out in the memory), but it feels almost like they occur by accident, or are merely a fact of nature as opposed to images created by humans. The #13 film of 2008.

Still Walking – It’s A Christmas Tale à la Yasujiro Ozu. Koreeda Hirokazu’s film is about a family reuniting for the 15th anniversary of the oldest son’s death. He’d drowned while pulling a kid out of the ocean. There’s lots of food being cooked, family issues being glossed over and not resolved, more than enough passive aggression to go around and always a palpable sense of a family that loves each other, though they may not particularly like each other. The whole cast is great, but the real standout is Kirin Kiki as the mother. Koreeda films the family’s mostly traditional Japanese home much like Ozu would have, though he’s not nearly as strenuously stylized. The camera spends much of the time at tatami level, but occasionally rises to a traditional height. So it isn’t as rigorous an homage as, say, Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Café Lumière, but the music is definitely Ozuvian and the family dynamic almost seems like a reverse Ozu: in most of his films the family actually likes each other and keeps what issues they might have hidden. An interesting point of comparison is with Tokyo Story, wherein the parents are unwanted or ignored by their children. In Still Walking, it often seems to be the other way around. The #8 film of 2008.

Avatar – Well, the spectacle of it was fun, I’m a sucker for big battle scenes and I couldn’t help but get caught up in these. But it would have been better if it had cut out about 90% of the dialogue. I think it’s weird that the humans in the film had never seen Dances With Wolves. Or had any idea of their own history. Seems to me that the history of the last half of the 20th Century has relegated this kind of naked imperialism to the status of historical relic. Modern imperialists are much subtler, and you’d expect them to be even more so 150 years from now (unless of course, the leftward course of history continues and something like this never happens again). Of course, if it’s supposed to be a historical allegory, then its deviations from and simplification of the history of colonization in America are pretty glaring (it was about a lot more than naked greed for strip mining: international prestige and power politics, homes and land for a growing mass of poor people, often refugees from war-torn and even more poverty-stricken nations, evangelical religious imperatives, etc). Enough to render its critique kinda silly. The film has a couple potentially interesting ideas (the fact that everyone in it has an avatar: the humans’ are technological, the Na’vi are biological and the relation of the Na’vi’s electro-chemical connection with the plants and animals on their planet being analogous to what we’d call god) that don’t really get explored in favor of lame stereotypes of bloodthirsty soldiers (almost offensive, really) and Giovanni Ribisi’s half-assed Paul Reiser impression.

Movie Roundup: One Week Til Swing Time Edition

Love in the Afternoon – This is, apparently, a lot of people’s favorite of the Moral Tales, but I think I liked it the least. Part of my problem with it, though, is pretty silly: it has, by far, the worst clothing I’ve seen in a film in a very long time. I know 1972 was an awful time for fashion, but still, this is ridiculous. Sure, it’s kind of cute that the main character, a businessman (Bernard Verley) who has a platonic affair with an old friend (Chloe as played by Zouzou in some really horrifying outfits) while his wife is pregnant, wears nothing but turtlenecks (blue, red, lime green), except when he buys a tight flannel shirt right before meeting Chloe (symbolism!). The best part of the film happens early on, when Verley fantasizes about being able to control the minds of everywoman he meets, and all the ones he meets are the women from the other Moral Tales. A nice little touch tying them all together. This is the only of the Moral Tales wherein the protagonist is already married, in each of the others he’s only in love with or engaged to another woman when faced with temptation. That makes him a bit more reprehensible and also makes the film more conventional: from a relaxed exploration of the male psyche as it tries (and usually fails) to relate to and understand women, it becomes a critique of the banality of bourgeois life. After the other five films in the series, I expect more from Rohmer. The #9 film of 1972.

That Hamilton Woman – Vivien Leigh stars as a lower class girl who sleeps her way up the ranks until she gets to marry the British Ambassador to Naples during the Napoleonic Wars. Then, she meets Laurence Olivier’s Horatio Nelson (famous sea captain, also married) and falls in love. The two carry on their affair, regardless of the fact that everyone knows about it, because the two of them are so pretty that they just can’t keep their hands off each other. It’s essentially the real-life story of Leigh and Olivier’s relationship, except in reality Olivier kept all his arms and eyes. The two of them are as terrific as ever, and wonderful together. The #8 film of 1941.

It Should Happen To You – I saw this 1954 George Cukor film on TCM, which showed it in the 1.85 aspect ratio. I looked around the internet and couldn’t find anything definitive on whether that’s the correct ratio or not. It looks like it may have been cropped at the top and bottom at times. Regardless, it’s an excellent comedy with Judy Holliday as a young woman who wants to be famous so much she buys a billboard and puts her name on it. It works and soon she’s a hit in ads and talk shows and is fighting off Peter Lawford. This bodes ill for her relationship with documentarian Jack Lemmon, whose interested in reality, not celebrity. Cukor and Lawford do some great work in the scene following his and Hollidays first date, with Lawford falling out of and suddenly imposing himself back into the frame next to her as she tries to say goodnight to him and get into her apartment alone, menacing and comical at the same time, it’s a textbook case of the power of blocking to carry a scene. The #15 film of 1954.

I Love Melvin – Another celebrity-seeking girl from the early 50s is Debbie Reynolds in this musical by director Don Weis (The Affairs of Dobie Gillis). The draw is the reuniting of Reynolds with her Singin’ in the Rain costar Donald O’Connor (who seems a bit out of place as the romantic lead, but that’s all part of the film’s charm). Reynolds plays an aspiring actress (she plays the football in a Broadway musical) and O’Connor a photographer’s assistant at Look magazine who falls for her. He promises to get her a spread, or a cover in the magazine in order to impress her family so they won’t make her marry some rich zero. Many songs ensue. And I mean it: it feels like this movie has more songs per minute than any musical I’ve ever seen. They’re not particularly famous songs, but they’re well-written and the dance numbers are terrific (chock full of references to other musicals too: O’Connor does a few Kellys (including the lightpost pose from Singin’ in the Rain) and Astaires (the rollerskates number from Shall We Dance). It all adds up to a perfect bit of fluff. The #10 film of 1953.