Summer Movies 2013 Pt. VI
Posted by Gerald on July 12, 2013
Summer Movie #51 – Behind the Rainbow (Jihan El-Tahri, 2008): This excellent documentary deals with the political rivalry between Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma for control of the ANC in South Africa. The film uses this rivalry to give an interesting account of the transition of the ANC from an anti-apartheid liberation movement to a ruling political party and the compromises and problems that transition entailed. The most interesting segment for me was the discussion of the corruption probes that eventually came to involve Zuma directly. The interviews show the thin line that exists between “networking” and corruption and the way that people can dismiss illegalities because they see their actions as morally justified. If you have ever been interested in the story of South Africa after apartheid, this is well worth watching.
Summer Live Movie #8 – Much Ado About Nothing (Joss Whedon, 2012): Loads of fun, mostly due to some great acting moments. There were lots of familiar faces from the Whedonverse – so I spent most of the movie going “Buffy…Angel…Firefly…Buffy & Angel…Avengers…oh, Dollhouse!” It was interesting to see Clark Gregg as someone other than Agent Coulson. Nathan Fillion as Dogberry, the Captain of the Watch, was funny as always. I’m always impressed by Alexis Denisof’s (as Benedick) willingness to embrace playing a fool, but then give him a serious core (as he did so well with Wesley on both Buffy and Angel). Reed Diamond was great as Don Pedro – being dignified and mischievious and foolish by turns. The core of the movie though was Amy Acker as Beatrice – clever then foolish, dramatic then comedic, often within the same scene – she was great to watch. Not every scene worked (sometimes the movie is a bit too cute for its own good) but it was still a wonderful adaptation. It was also interesting to compare and contrast this adaptation with Kenneth Branagh’s 1993 version (which I really enjoyed). I think seeing both gives a sense of how two different directors can bring different tones to the same material. Branagh’s, unsurprisingly, was broader and more bombastic while Whedon’s was lighthearted and more intimate. I strongly suggest watching both.
Summer Movie #52 – Cabin in the Woods (Drew Goddard, 2012): This movie is brilliant in the way it uses the tropes of the standard horror film while also twisting them. It also asks a couple of uncomfortable questions along the way. By showing this group of people who are creating a scenario and their reactions to what is happening, the movie is also holding a mirror up to me (and you) about the voyeurism involved in watching these movies. The use of sexuality contrasting with violence is such a commonplace in horror films that the viewer has already agreed to participate in it just by buying a ticket. We’re reminded of this as we watch the technicians watching the sex and the violence.
We’re also handed a serious question of morality at the end: Is the sacrifice of one innocent person worth the salvation of six billion? Where does that one person’s right to live end in the face of the lives of everyone (literally everyone) else? The question is put into even sharper relief as we are reminded that if this one person lives, he is just going to die along with everyone else anyway. “Do you want to die with everyone, or do you want to die for everyone?” This isn’t an artificial question just created in a monster movie – it is whether to go to war, it is capital punishment, it is deciding who does and who does not get medical care or where the funding goes, it is even deciding whether we should have speed limits of 55 or 25. These all come down to just how many people – and which ones – are going to die and what we are willing (or not willing) to do to prevent those deaths. That is worth thinking a bit about. That is a lot for a gory monster pic.
Summer Movie #53 – Jackie Brown (Quentin Tarantino, 1997): How much awesomeness can one movie contain? The answer is about this much. Pam Grier and Samuel L. Jackson star in an Elmore Leonard story adapted and directed by Tarantino. I just love this movie. Outside of the typical Tarantino film references (everything from blaxploitation to The Graduate) and the great performances (to my mind this was a career topper for Grier and Robert Forster was fantastic), this movie is just plain well-crafted. The scene where Ordell (Jackson) kills Beaumont (Chris Tucker) is wonderful. The comic build-up that sets up a brutal killing for maximum effect is perfect. Then the shot itself with a car moving out of frame on the right, then the camera cranes up to catch it coming back in from the left at a distance so we don’t really see what happens so much as hear it. It is such a great shot. Have I mentioned that I REALLY like Quentin Tarantino’s work?
Summer Movie #54 – Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese, 1976): I saw this movie on TV back when I was a kid (read teenager – I was thirteen when it was released in theaters so I had to be at least fifteen or so when I saw it). It disturbed me – I didn’t like it. I also couldn’t stop thinking about it. From a later point in life I can see that as a sign of something really being a piece of art. It just won’t leave you alone. You aren’t the same person after you’ve encountered it. I’ve not seen it in many years now and – especially after watching these documentaries on underground film and music in New York in the 1970s – I thought now was the time.
The film is famous as a depiction of madness that puts the viewer into a feeling of being in a dream – or a hallucination. It is also famous for how it creates echoes between the violence and madness in the main character with the violence and madness of 1970s New York and of 1970s America. What really struck me is that even while depicting all of this, you still see Scorsese singing a love song to the city; maybe a love song to a psychotic girlfriend who doesn’t really love him back, but still a love song. You can see it in the quirky characters, the little moments of daily life, the shots of architecture – he loves the city, even in its madness. Another stray thought – I don’t buy the idea that the epilogue is a dying fantasy (sorry Roger Ebert) and evidently, neither do Scorsese or Paul Schrader (who wrote it). Instead the ending seems a last act of madness; Bickle is embraced by the media as a hero where, if he had just been quicker at the political rally, the same media would be depicting him as, well, it later would depict John Hinckley (more about that below). That orgasm (there really is no other word that so describes it) of vigilante violence is a result of his earlier failure – his impotence – and we can see at the end, in that last glance in the rearview mirror, that he is still as much of a ticking time-bomb as ever. With that, I’m struck by the similarity to Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange. Both feature a madman in a mad and decaying world who comes to be lauded by that world in a supreme moment of social madness. You’ve got to love 1970s cinema. Finally, I couldn’t help but think of John Hinckley and in particular of how horrible that experience had to be for Jodie Foster. The fear of being the focus of a madman had to be terrible of course, but also the feeling that work you are, justly, proud of has been tainted forever by association with madness and murder (again, similarities to A Clockwork Orange here) had to be almost as bad. Also it had to be terrible to know that your name has become a sort of macabre punch-line. I remember the endless comic allusions to the idea of doing something insane for Jodie Foster.
If you haven’t seen this, you should see it. It isn’t fun, it is great.
Summer Movie #55 – Midnight Cowboy (John Schlesinger, 1969): Here is another film famous for its depiction of New York at its decaying worst. This is one of those notable movies I’d never seen before – the only X-rated film ever to win Best Picture. It is a bit amazing to realize that the X-rating didn’t come from the horrifying sequence depicting a remembered rape or from the fascinating depiction of the various psychological associations that the main character has with sex. No, it was rated X because of its “homosexual frame of reference” – an interesting phrase given the deep (almost manic) homophobia of the main character, Joe Buck’s (Jon Voight). I’m not sure I feel qualified (or justified?) in passing judgment on whether the film itself is homophobic. I think it could be argued both ways. On the one hand we are shown a link between Joe’s rape and his homophobia which could be taken as a justification, depictions of violence against gays, and no gay character in the film is shown as anything but a “deviant”. On the other hand, almost every character in the film is depicted as a “deviant” of some sort – which could be a statement about the whole idea. At no point is the anti-gay violence emotionally justified by the film, even in the case of Joe’s attack on the character played by Bernard Hughes. I’m inclined to say the film isn’t homophobic, but that is (as always) ultimately in the eye of the beholder. Great performances all around are part of what makes this film work. After seeing Robert DeNiro at his intense best last night (in Taxi Driver) and Dustin Hoffman burying himself in one of his signature roles tonight, I’m forcibly (and happily) reminded of what these men were before they became stunt casting for light comedies.
Summer Movie #56 – Tokyo Story (Yasujiro Ozu, 1953): This is a very simple story about an old couple visiting their grown children in Tokyo. On this simple frame we get ruminations about how parents and children can disappoint one another, how generations change, how family is so much more than blood. All of this is done with little actual exposition or dialogue. Ozu is quite comfortable with just leaving silence when people wouldn’t really speak and letting the audience figure out the inner dialogue of the person on the screen. The pacing is slow and shows how much of life is not made up of big dramatic moments. The camera angles are low and he is constantly shooting deep through different frames (doorways and windows, for example). I think the camera might move once during the entire film – the shots are static and the actors move. The result is beautiful, moving, and slow. American movies usually show a story and we see life along the way in the best ones. This is more like some of French New Wave where we see life happen and discover the story along the way. I have this theory that American movies and television are fixated on redemption (or its failures). There is no redemption here, especially at the moment it would always come in an American film – right after the death of a sympathetic character. Instead, most of the characters learn nothing – they simply are who they are.
Summer Movie #57 – Winchester ’73 (Anthony Mann, 1950): I woke up early and watched this on TCM rather than getting out of bed – which is to say it was unplanned. This isn’t a new one to me and I actually had my eyes closed through most of it. You really can follow most of this movie on music cues and sound effects alone. This is a famous western directed by a man who made a bunch of them. It has the typical virtues and flaws one would expect of a western released in 1950. Jimmy Stewart gives a great performance as the revenge-driven protagonist. A young Rock Hudson has a minor role as an Indian (white guys in grease paint aren’t Native Americans) and a young Tony Curtis has a one-line role as a soldier. Shelly Winters is the hot saloon girl with visions of settling down. Will Geer, who was 48 at the time, plays a rustic old Wyatt Earp, which is notable given that Earp was 28 at the time the movie is set (it starts on July 4, 1876). The conceit – that the eponymous rifle was a character in the film and following it allows us to unfold the story of two brothers in conflict – was interesting, but I’m not sure it really worked. According to a little internet research, Fritz Lang was originally supposed to direct and saw the rifle as the main character’s sole source of strength. That would have been interesting. This was a competently made movie with some exceptional elements (Stewart’s performance and a somewhat dark tone in spots stand out), but not a great movie to my mind.
Summer Movie #58 – Cloud Atlas (Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski, & Tom Tykwer. 2012): This movie seemed to polarize the critics, and I see why. It is big and ambitious, and it doesn’t always succeed. It also looks like it should be a big action movie, but is instead an examination of humanity and how our lives affect each other’s. I have to say that, despite its flaws, I really liked it and think it will reward another viewing. It is a demanding movie, with its non-linear structure that inter-weaves several narratives happening at different times. You have to pay attention to it. If you try texting and holding conversations, you are going to miss some of its subtle cues and turns. You also have to think about it and remember what you’ve already seen. In that it is very reminiscent of another movie I liked despite its flaws, Darren Aronofsky’s “The Fountain” (2006). Like with that film, I’m inclined to think the reviewers who dismiss “Cloud Atlas” are blinded by assumptions about what an imaginative fiction film with a lot of visual effects is supposed to be. These movies aren’t popcorn epics (and I do love popcorn epics). They are both reflective of the best literary science fiction in that they try to use the genre to say something about being human, as does all of the best literature and art. This movie is definitely flawed. It is a bit bloated in spots and uneven in tone. The use of make-up and CGI to reinforce the idea of the same people in different bodies over time doesn’t always work. Still, there are great performances here and when the movie works – which is more often than not – it is sweet, sad, funny, and powerful. It is also feature beautiful cinematography and effects as well as wonderful music. I finished it with tears in my eyes.
Summer Movie #59 – The Atomic Submarine (Spencer Gordon Bennet, 1959): B-movie goodness! A nuclear submarine investigating mysterious attacks in the Arctic discovers a flying saucer piloted by a half-melted hairy eyeball and proceeds to kick its alien ass before it can trigger an invasion of the Earth. Along the way a decent but misguided scientist learns that pacifism will just open the door to the alien menace to come. There are a lot of similarities here to Irwin Allen’s “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea” which was a couple years in the future. This movie made me think about two things: 1) What is the deal with aliens with one giant eyeball? And 2) I really miss Mystery Science Theater 3000.
Summer Movie #60 – I Shot Andy Warhol (Mary Harron, 1996): There is a fine line between a sympathetic portrayal of someone and a defense. I think this film walks that line quite well. The film making and Lili Taylor’s performance show us a damaged person in Valerie Solanas, but one who is smart, energetic, creative, and oddly charming – in a frightening way. We also see a person whose problems may well have been exacerbated by the atmosphere of the Factory, with its combination of creative energy and charisma with a disdain for writing, cliquish weirdness, and personal coldness. The more I’ve learned about the Factory, the more I’m both intrigued and repelled by it. I can’t seem to look away though, which would probably make Warhol happy. I think Stephen Dorff gives the performance of his career as Candy Darling. It was interesting to see faces I know well from TV series in a very different light here such as Jared Harris, Michael Imperioli, and Jill Hennessey. Frankly, I liked this movie a lot more than I thought I would, which is the same reaction I had after seeing Harron’s “The Notorious Bettie Page” (2005). I’ve got “American Psycho” in my queue and I might need to check out “The Moth Diaries” as well.
Summer Movie #61 – American Psycho (Mary Harron, 2000): I’ve caught bits and pieces of this movie on cable, but I’ve never watched the whole thing. I should also say upfront that I am completely unfamiliar with the novel. Also, I watched the longer un-rated version and not the theatrical release. I’m not sure the whole movie works, but I’m still pretty impressed. Christian Bale’s performance as Bateman is intense and fearless. This film comes across on one level as a parody of 80s era excess, but I think there is more here. Bateman is a sociopath who is constantly trying to mimic the emotions he doesn’t feel. He talks endlessly about music as if he is reciting critical reviews rather than stating an opinion (perhaps he was, in the novel?) He is narcissistic and almost aggressively superficial – all very “80s era excess” in style. More than this, his pretense at humanity fits in very well with the Wall Street/Ivy League crowd and their pretension. But is this just a statement about the 80s, or is this a more subversive statement about class in America? I’m really not sure. I also think Harron did something interesting with the idea that we are dealing with a psychotic narrator. Over the film the depiction of his violence becomes more extreme – but we are left at the end not knowing what parts of that have actually happened. Bateman is clearly delusional, but the people around him are so self-absorbed and impersonal with one another that they are no more reliable as narrators than he is. We have no third person from “Rashomon” here to tell us which parts are true. The result is an ending that is even more ambiguous (or possibly just murky) than that of “Fight Club.” I’m not sure all of this works as well as it might have – but it was an ambitious attempt in any case.