Sunday, July 17, 2011

WEEKLY SEEMINGLY RANDOM FILM REVIEWS: "The Illusionist," "Glorious 39," "Lovely, Still", & more.

In my earlier blog, I discussed the process through which I select the movies I get to view. The fact that I was so elaborate and detailed about it, was probably both an explanation of why the films I will review on a pretty much weekly basis will be rather random in their selection, (although I'll certainly make preferences for the more recently released films) and probably partial denial that I'm not a proper film reviewer, able to see every new release that swings into town with a little section of the free media that will be guaranteed to have hundreds if not thousands of readers. Well, at least I have a section of the free media, although that's available to anybody, hence the word, "free," instead of "unfree" media. Or not-free media. Whatever the word is. I have an outlet, and hears to hoping my opinions will be worth something to people other than me.


The Illusionist:  (2010) Director: Sylvain Chomet
4 1/2 STARS
I recently began going through Jacques Tati’s Hulot movies. I started with “M. Hulot’s Holiday,” which I didn’t care for that much. I've since seen his Oscar-winning masterpiece “Mon Oncle,” and the amazing “Playtime,” which pretty much bankrupted Tati and for all-intensive purposed ended his career.  He was the last of the silent clowns. He should’ve been a star during the time of Keaton and Chaplin, but instead came around in the fifties and sixties, and his films must’ve felt like throwbacks even then, but underneath they’re satirist view of progress and materialism, the underlying themes showed the poetic humanity of it’s characters. The almost Chaplinesque ethos of Hulot is just as memorable as that damn fish fountain that’s only turned on for company. I can’t think of a better filmmaker to attempt to recreate the Tati magic than Sylvain Chomet, who made the strange but wonderful “The Triplets of Belleville,” a couple years ago, which was also a mostly silent movie about a determine bicyclist who made a wrong turn on the Tour De France. “The Illusionist,” I think is even better. It’s a tale of a very good magician, who’s old-time magic act is being replaced by the popularity of rock bands in late fifties yet continues touring and performing taking any part he can get to do with act. Based on an unfilmed Tati script that, which apparently emphasized a mother-daughter type relationship between the two leads,  the magician, and the young woman who is amazed at his apparent magic as he try to work beyond his means to impress her. That hand-drawn animation is simply magical. It earned Chomet his second Oscar-nomination for Best Animated Film last year, and he definitely deserved it. It makes sense too, no human can possibly recreate Tati in live-action, but in animation he comes alive once more.
Glorious 39: (2010) Director: Steven Poliakoff
Steven Poliakoff’s films seem to overpopulated the Gibson Library’s collection sometimes. While I’ve never watched any of his films before, I’ve picked up and put down “Friends and Crocodiles,” and “Gideon’s Daughter,” more than a couple times. I found it odd his name kept popping up ‘cause at the time, I had never heard of him.  He’s more well-known in Britain apparently, and “Glorious 39,” was an interesting introduction to his work, for a while anyway. Told in flashback, although at times, that seems questionable, the story set in 1939, pre-war Britain as Glorious, which is the nickname of Anna, the adopted older daughter of a well-respected member of Parliament, stumbles into a never-before-explored compartment of her house (Yes, we’re expected to believe that neither her nor her siblings ever went through the looking glass), and discovered numerous unusual material, including records that are labeled “foxtrot,” but are actually meeting between high-ranking politicos, a couple of whom soon end up dead. There’s some intriguing political mystery to begin the movie, as the country’s is in conflict between how to handle Hitler under Chamberlain’s reign, but the movie diverges badly into numerous overwrought puzzling encounters, oftentimes its difficult or even impossible to tell whether Glorious is being the victim of cruel pranks pulled to gaslight her, whether she's actually stumbled her way into a government conspiracy and that she's the next murder victim, or whether it’s all in her head. Some of the supporting characters even seem to be imaginary. By the time there’s an arbitrary ending and explanation, I had already felt the rug pulled out from under me,  and was tired of being jerked around.
Lovely, Still (2010) Director: Nik Fackler
“Lovely, Still,” works in spite of it’s really contrived and disturbingly disingenuous ending because it’s well acted and casted. I don’t mind twist endings, but we don’t need them in every movie anymore. This movie is about a wonderful little romance between two older characters. Martin Landau, plays the lonely old man who works at the grocery store, while Ellen Burstyn plays the newly-arrived next door neighbor living with her daughter. He lived along for a while and when she suddenly knocks on his door and asks her out, he’s unsure of what to do. He enlists the help of his young boss, played by Adam Scott of “Party Down,” and “Parks and Recreation” fame, to help him out as he stumbles through and relearns the nuances of dating. There’s some funny scenes where Scott and Landau, search through a Wal-Mart type store trying to find the perfect Christmas present. Elizabeth Banks doesn’t have a lot to do as Burstyn’s daughter, but what she has, she does extremely well. The days are separated by these strange visions that keep recurring in Landau’s dreams, and only at the end are we given an explanation; I ask why do we need an explanation, why is there something that needs to be explained? It’s not surprisingly where this road eventually leads, but it’s just annoying that the first-time filmmaker Nik Fackler, couldn’t think of anything better than trick the audience. He should get homework lessons from Sarah Polley’s wonderful film “Away From Her.” Even still, the performance are great, and at least for an hour, we get a really intricate and touching romance, and it’s not between a couple twenty-year old who don’t know anything.
Metropolis (Completed) (2010, 1927) Director: Fritz Lang
It’s the greatest and most important film find ever. It didn’t matter that the found footage was a  shotty transfer of 35mm to a 16mm film, and it looks worse that “Detour,” its only surviving complete version of Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis,” and it is an amazing mini-miracle that it was found at all. I had written and seen the most recent restoration of the film on numerous occasions beforehand, and considered it one of the greatest films ever made to begin with. Now, we get the scenes we could only imagine and infer before. Equipped with a new score as well, the elaborate biblical metaphors of the story become far more developed in this version, and we also finally get the great scenes of the worker’s night on the town, the reveal of the Hel statue that had only survived in photographs before, and a truly amazing scene where the children are saved from the flooding city after the workers, under the spell of the robot Mary, destroy the heart machine. On top of the great use of special effects, and the architectural models that have been repeated in sci-fi classics even today, I never realize that extras played one of the most important characters in the film. There’s thousands of them, and they just don’t populate the screen, they’re running, they’re moving, they’re climbing and bouncing along the machines, etc. etc. Today it’s not impossible to shoot these scenes, but it so much easier with special effects to create many extras out of a few, it’s just not viable to do it. The whole movie feels at times like the famous pullout long take from “Gone with the Wind.” Now that the movie’s mysteries are revealed, the film amazingly more mysterious and entrancing to us. 5 out of 5 stars.
The Wedding Banquet (1993) Director: Ang Lee
4 1/2 STARS
Part of the cross-culture family trilogy of films Ang Lee made in the late eighties-early nineties, along with the masterful “Eat, Drink, Man, Woman,” and the great “Pushing Hands,” “The Wedding Banquet,” is about the unexpected development of a family, as much as it’s about the culture clash between Chinese values and expectations and the more day-to-day workmanlike life of their American son, Wai-Tung. His parents try everything including matchmaking services to find Wai-Tung a mate, blissfully unaware that Wai-Tung is gay and has been living with his partner Simon for years, but an unexpected visit from the parents, and a downstairs tenant that’s in love with Wai-Tung, and needs a green card later, and this suddenly sounds like “The Birdcage.” And there’s some humor in the film, but the plot isn’t beholden to its contrivances.  Despite there barely being a wedding, there is a lavish wedding banquet, where everybody seems surprised that Wai-Tung has gotten married, but that doesn’t slow down the party, which doesn’t even stop when the couple enters the Honeymoon sweet. Truth does and eventually comes out, but it doesn’t lead to the kind of over-the-top farcical conflicts that normally occur with this material. Lee is too smart for that, and too observant of human behavior. It has it’s over-the-top moments, but because it’s not relying on them, the film has aged well.

Flushed Away: (2006) Directors: David Bowers and Sam Fell
“Flushed Away,” marked the first time the guys behind Aardman Animation, didn’t use they’re typical claymation, and switch to computer generated animation. While, that was a good decision considering how complicated the material is (Clay and water, can’t be a good combination),   the story was adequate. Nothing special, other that the amazing creation of the underground rat metropolis that bore many similarities to the London.  I also thought it was interesting how the Rita character looked remarkably like Kate Winslet, despite all the characters basically looking like the typical Aardman creation.  (They’re most noted for Wallace & Gromit).   Yet, I basically came out of the movie almost instantly forgetting it after guessing the entire story about twenty minutes in. There’s nothing technically wrong with it, and some of the animation scenes are quite creative, like the flying over London scenes with the balloon, and the speedboat through the sewers, but as a movie, It was basically a way to kill ninety minutes without thinking too much. Nothing bad, just nothing special
Oliver! (1968) Director: Carol Reed
Oliver won 6 Academy Awards in 1968, including Best Picture and Best Director for Carol Reed. I never got around to it until now, and while I hardly think this film was worthy of such high praise, (especially when compared to fellow nominees “The Lion in Winter,” and “Romeo & Juliet,” and the not-nominated “2001: A Space Odyssey”) it’s certainly an entertaining movie. It’s wonderfully visual, filling the art direction and set design with great and elaborate Victorian London scenery for the actors to chew about in. I kinda think “Oliver Twist,” is strange material for a musical (Although, I do admit that the Disney film “Oliver & Company,” is a sentimental favorite despite some of the films sappiness.) but the familiarity of the story helps. Since we know essentially what’s going to happen, it allows us to let the story be told instead of trying to outthink or outsmart it. While outside of the film, only one or two of the songs are particularly memorable, the movie as a whole it’s a surprisingly breezy and refreshing musical.
…And God Created Woman (1956) Director: Roger Vadim
2 1/2 STARS
Roger Vadim’s “…And God Created Woman,” is infamous for introducing the world to Brigitte Bardot, as St. Tropez’s town nymphomaniac. An orphan who constantly gets kicked out of her house, it’s hard to completely explain her character other than the harsh words I just used. She has some kind of Carmen-esque characteristics and devilishness to her, but when she then gets thrust into marriage, the story kinda becomes a reverse “Taming of the Shrew.” The movie, was controversial in it’s day, but would hardly raise any controversy now. I frankly was pretty much bored out of my mind at this film. There’s some discussion over whether she’s really in love with husband’s brother or with her husband, or if she’s even capable of love, but at a certain point, I lost the capability to care. 
The Lady Vanishes (1938) Director: Alfred Hitchcock
3 1/2 STARS
I’ve never been the biggest, early Hitchcock fan, but “The Lady Vanishes,” is one of his wittier works. A woman talks with another woman as they board a train. This happens fairly late in the movie, strangely enough. We’ve already had about twenty minutes of waiting for the train at the hotel, where we get introduced to most of the cast, including my favorite character, to uptight Brits who are obsessed with getting to see the cricket match on time. (Since cricket matches last days sometimes, this is an especially eccentric position) Suddenly, the woman disappears, or as the title claims vanishes, not just from the train, but apparently from all the passenger’s memories. Variations of this theme have obviously com and gone since, but it always seems more special when Hitchcock goes into classic Hitchcock thriller mode. While this isn’t in the upper tier of his canon, it’s certainly one of his better early works, that still has some influence today. 3 ½ stars.

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