Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Cap-Syool Reviews!! Enjoy Them Now!

Here are some for you to read! Will you!?

Dragonwyck (d. Joseph L. Mankiewicz) - This is one of Vincent Price's very early Gothic thriller/melodrama roles (it's also the first film by Mankiewicz). The story is basically that a young woman (Gene Tierney) is overwhelmed by the wealth and smoothness of distant relative and wealthy landowner, Nicholas Van Ryn (Price). Then when she marries him, she finds out he's a crazy asshole. Price is wonderful, as always, and his final breakdown is terrific -- nobody did sweaty, arrogant psychic disintegration quite like Price -- but Mankiewicz seemed a bit too concerned with making his film important -- laying on the plight-of-the-worker stuff a bit too heavy -- and therefore, in his mind (I'm wildly speculating) better than your standard genre film, and the result is that the film sags. There's a terrific efficiency to the best genre films, especially from this era (the film was made in 1946), so that when a film like Dragonwyck makes a transparent attempt to rise above them, it's hard not to see why those other films are so very good.

Summer Hours (d. Olivier Assayas) - This beautiful and beautifully acted French film, about a wealthy French family, whose matriarch passes away in an early scene, struggling to deal with her estate (consisting mainly of a gorgeous country home, and a sprawling collection of artwork), is not actually about family strife so much as it is about losing your past, and how much more meaningful art can be to the individual than it ever will be as art. Charles Berling, as the eldest son Frederic, gets the top marks, but as I said, everyone is superb. And for a movie with such a small, intimate story, there's an incredible pace to it, of the kind that would utterly confuse your run-of-the-mill contemporary thriller filmmaker. Carried along, no doubt, by those performances. Top shelf.

Johnny Guitar (d. Nicholas Ray) - A quite strange Western from the 1950s, featuring Joan Crawford and Mercedes McCambridge as the White Hat and the Black Hat, respectively. A lot has been made of this gender twist on the traditional Western, but the film itself doesn't hammer on any particular point: this is just the story, and these are just the characters. Mind you, its tone is less that of a Western than it is a melodrama, or "women's picture", of the kind that Douglas Sirk made at his most bombastic (which shouldn't be taken as a criticism of Sirk). But if it works, it works, so why complain about bombast, if that's the goal, and the goal is struck dead center? Besides which, any film that features Sterling Hayden and Ernest Borgnine can't be that bad. The fact that Hayden plays the title character who is also the Mysterious Stranger shouldn't confuse one into thinking that Joan Crawford isn't, in fact, the star (she's great, too, as is McCambridge). So what it is, in fact, is a genre mash-up; while that idea tends to yield horror-comedies, or horror-Westerns, or horror-SF, here we have Western-melodrama, which is actually a hybrid with a long history. All of which I suppose to say that I'm a bit curious why so many people think Johnny Guitar is so bizarre.


Extract (d. Mike Judge) - Each of Mike Judge's live-action films (I'm excluding Beavis and Butthed Do America, because I remember that being a bit of a sensation at the time) has taken its own sweet time finding an audience. Office Space and Idiocracy were both dumped by their studios, and each has gained cult audiences of varying degrees of healthiness. His newest film, Extract, actually got a legitimate theatrical release, and still nobody went. Nobody who did go seemed overly taken with it, and my expectations were therefore low. But I really enjoyed it, as it turns out. It's not as near-perfect as Office Space, or as occasionally riotous as Idiocracy, but unlike that latter film it also doesn't run out of steam in the last third. It's consistently genial and entertaining, bolstered by a terrific cast of outstanding deadpan comic performers -- Jason Bateman, J. K. Simmons, Kristen Wiig, Ben Affleck, and the inhumanly attractive Mila Kunis, to name a few. Mike Judge knows ordinary people, and he knows what's so funny about them.

The Children (d. Tommy Shankland) - This horror film was primarily striking to me because it plunks a family down as the only possible victims, and then begins killing them. It's quite a bit more complicated, as well as better, than that sounds, but it's still the aspect of the film that stands out most strongly for me. The gist is, over Christmas an extended family gets together to celebrate, but one of the children has contracted some sort of virus, which only seems to be spread through the other children nearby, and which turns them into blank-eyed killers. This is brutal stuff, especially when the adults start fighting back, which you do sort of hope they'll do, but for God's sake look what they're doing! It's that sort of film, with, it would seem, some deeper implications having to do with abortion, but which I haven't quite parsed, and which may not be totally parse-able.
Dead Snow (d. Tommy Wirkola) - This movie was fun enough, I suppose, but if you're going to make a movie that spoofs other zombie movies, don't get around to the spoofing eventually. Don't play it reasonably straight for half the movie, possibly longer, and then go all zany and madcap all of a sudden. I'd prefer a movie about zombie Nazis in the snow to be played as straight as possible, myself, but if I can't have that I'd at least like a filmmaker who can commit to a tone.
You know, I think I want to withdraw that "fun enough" comment. It is, in a way, but it's also sort of incompetent, and cheap, and thinly imagined. I'd forgive it a bit more if it had ended with the stirring scene of zombie butchery cut to a Finnish folk spiritual song, but they didn't stop there, and all my goodwill drained off.
Gamer (d. Neveldine/Taylor) - Well, it's happened. We now live in a world where you can watch a new film and not see the influence of Hitchcock, or Ford, or Welles, or Chaplin, but rather of Tony Scott. And not the Tony Scott of Crimson Tide, but the guy who made Domino and slapped those motherfucking English subtitles of lines already spoken in English by American actors all over Man on Fire. And all in service of what? A remake of The Running Man. And it's worse than the original.
Take me, Lord. I'm ready. I cannot breathe air with the same people who allowed Gamer to be made. With the two unconscionable bastards who made it, and who joined their last names with a meaningless backslash, Face/Off style, creating in my mind the Hellish image of a bi-headed, quadri-limbed Nether-God, who would thunder its heavy legs across the planet, leaving blasted cities and fallow land in its wake as it tossed back its slavering heads and shrieked its murderous laughter into the cosmos. Such a world is more than my feeble mind can accredit.
Day 37
I awake in the middle of the night. A ghastly storm is assaulting my home, throwing back my shuttered windows, the latches all tinfoil and twine to these blustery and soaking hands! The window....the window is open, and inviting.
Day 38
The television flickers on, unbidden by my hand or mind. Gamer is on. Michael C. Hall is dancing to "I've Got You Under My Skin" while his henchmen, in time to the music, prepare to attack Gerard Butler.
The open, flapping window is streaked with the chilled rains. As flaps the window, so flaps the pages of Al-Hazred's Necronomicon. A book I had destroyed. I know I did. I set it alight and flung its blazing, ashy pages into the sea's gaping throat!! How can it be here now!? And now that kid who plays Butler's controller is on the screen again...as through the window I hear the bleating of the dread Neveldine/Taylor rolling over the distant hills...
The window! The window!!


Greg said...

So you liked Gamer huh? Interesting, I'll have to check that out.

I agree on Dragonwyck. Often a director or writer trying to "raise" the material above its perceived to be lowly genre underpinnings makes for a worse movie even while they think they're making it better.

Haven't seen any of the rest but I don't think I've ever said this about Idiocracy (which I have stated in comments that I liked very much) and it needs to be said: The Time Machine ride at the end and it's description of 20th Century history is one of the funniest things I've seen in a movie in years. Dinosaurs, Charlie Chaplin and the UN. I mean, really, it's rare that a comedy saves such a good joke for the very end.

bill r. said...

GAMER is super. I can't wait to watch it again and again and again. And again and again and again. Forever.

That IDIOCRACY joke is a good one, and you're right, comedies, especially ones that are losing steam, end on that kind of high note. But I knew that payoff would be good. Judge's big jokes tend to be pretty funny, and you could tell he had something in his pocket regarding the time machine.

Ed Howard said...

The only one of these I've seen is Summer Hours, but now, like Greg, I really want to see Gamer. You're really pushing that film, huh?

Anyway, Assayas' film is indeed superb. What I loved most about it was how understated the storytelling is, when it's easy to imagine a film that really hammered home the same ideas and themes with sledgehammer subtlety. I mean, it's a film that deals with generation gaps and the misunderstandings between teens and their parents, and yet it somehow manages to actually treat the teens' experiences with respect rather than grumbling about "those damn kids" who don't understand their parents' art and culture. I thought the ending was especially revealing in that respect, the way Assayas makes that kids' party both somehow celebratory — life goes on — and a bit melancholy when juxtaposed against the past of that place.

Marilyn said...

I only see two of your written reviews, Bill.

bill r. said...

Ed, I'll be honest with you -- I had a bit of a "those damn kids" reaction to the ending of SUMMER HOURS. Not the granddaughter so much, because she understood, but nobody else cared. I know -- why should they? It wasn't their home or family. But still. I hate teenagers though, so...

Marilyn - I'm seeing them all. I don't know what's wrong on your end. It's too bad, too, because you're missing pur gold!

David N said...

I'm only seeing two reviews, too, Bill. The rest I had to highlight. I believe certain websites call it "inviso-text".

I loved "Summer Hours". Assayas is my favourite living French director beside Clare Denis. Have you seen "Demonlover"? I can't wait for his Carlos the Jackal miniseries this year.

"Idiocracy" gets better every time I see it. Jokes in every corner of every frame.

I saw "Gamer", too. A defence of it, of sorts: I think Neveldine and Taylor aren't interested in making a big dumb action sci-fi film, really. Sounds silly, I know, considering they wrote it, too. But they seem to be just interested in messing with the way scenes play out, or in shooting what should be big spectacular scenes of combat to look like they were shot on camcorder. That scene where the villain does his dance routine is what they're interested in. They have a bizarre sensibility which is a little anarchic and even subversive. The "Crank" films - which seem like action films but are really surreal comedies, built on a series of ridiculous, excessive, tasteless gags - are the best evidence of this. "Gamer" is more problematic, and I can't say I really enjoyed it, but I thought it was sort of interesting.

Christ, now I must sound a bit Armond White...

bill r. said...

Well...I didn't write it in inviso-text, and I'm still not seeing the problem. Can anyone explain this to me?

I did see DEMONLOVER, but too long ago. I picked up the DVD a while back, and am looking forward to checking it out again.

Assayas is making a Carlos the Jackal miniseries??? Holy shit. Sign me up.

I do agree with you that Neveldine and Taylor are interesting in the things you say they're interested in. But I hate that shit, and I think they suck at it. Sorry, that sounds like I'm being rude and attacking your taste or something, but I truly found the movie to be painful.

I saw the first CRANK, and I'd agree with you that it's basically a comedy. I didn't hate that one. I didn't like it either, but I didn't hate it. But I did indeed hate GAMER.

David N said...

Oh, I get your hate, and I wouldn't even say any of their stuff is to my taste, so I'm not offended. The "Crank" films are guilty pleasures at best. But I saw "Gamer" and my response to it was confusing, and maybe a little confused. I wanted it to be a b-movie sci-fi actioner. But it doesn't even work on that simplest of levels, does it?
Instead its this horrendously ugly thing that doesn't seem to know whether its a satire or a parody, wastes its budget and its cast, and has no real narrative drive or tension.

And yet - I found its contradictions interesting, somehow. I'll never see it again to figure out how, though. Its too unpleasant a watch. Maybe, as you say, they do suck at it.

The Assayas Carlos project is going to be released theatrically in the States, I believe...

Peter Nellhaus said...

I'm only seeing two reviews. The screen caps are fine though.

Scott Nye said...

I, too, don't understand the reputation Johnny Guitar has. But then again, and I know this makes me a bad cinephile, but I don't understand the reputation a lot of Nicholas Ray's films have. I've seen five or so of his movies, and the one I enjoyed most by far was Party Girl.

Oh, and the ending of Summer Hours makes the film brilliant. The daughter is crucial to understanding it, but it's all about the next generation, and them creating their own memories and attaching their own importance to the house and the grounds. Their experience is very different from their parents', but is no less valid for loud music and underage drinking. All of Frederic's worrying was for naught - a house like that will always matter.

bill r. said...

Scott, don't get me wrong: I liked JOHNNY GUITAR. It's just that, on reflection, it doesn't seem that weird, as it's tone is more melodrama than Western.

And haven't you ever seen IN A LONELY PLACE??

Also, I'm not saying that I didn't like, or get, the ending of SUMMER HOURS. I just hate teenagers, is all.

Tony Dayoub said...

SUMMER HOURS is a heck of a film. My first Assayas, so I was a bit out of my depth when trying to review it back during the NYFF. But I was impressed.

I really love JOHNNY GUITAR. Don't find it weird, but I can see how Crawford's casting might make it seem a bit unusual within the framework of her career, though.

I agree with you that any movie with Borgnine and Hayden has to be good. I discussed another film they appeared in together, an Alamo actioner called THE LAST COMMAND (which still isn't on DVD), over at Decisions at Sundown.

Scott Nye said...

I appreciated In a Lonely Place more than I actually responded to it. One of those movies that there's absolutely nothing wrong with so far as I can tell, it just didn't do it for me.