Sunday, March 12, 2006

Six movie pileup

TRISTRAM SHANDY: A COCK AND BULL STORY (2005, Michael Winterbottom, seen in theatre)- I can't really go into too much detail about why this movie was as awesome as it was, other than I was laughing pretty much the entire duration. It's less ADAPTATION than DAY FOR NIGHT, albeit much more overtly comedic, as it dissects the perils of making a film by taking its cue from an impossible project- an adaptation of an acclaimed, nearly impossible-to-adapt book that almost no one involved seems to have actually read. The result is meta as all getout- a film-within-a-film, Jeremy Northam and Ian Hart as "Mark" Winterbottom and a Frank Cottrell Boyce surrogate, lots of clever allusions that are well-deployed (lest the film come off as SHREK for the arthouse set). Also, more priceless bits than you can shake the proverbial stick at- "Tuscan sunset", men in wigs futzing around while a woman gives birth, "a womb with a view", LANCELOT DU LAC, the Gillian Anderson bits (has it really been six years since THE HOUSE OF MIRTH?), watching the dailies, the black page, and everything involving Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon's actorly bickering and jockeying, up to and including the final credits. Rating: ***1/2 ("Because it's funny. Isn't that enough?").

THE THREE BURIALS OF MELQUIADES ESTRADA (2005, Tommy Lee Jones, seen in theatre)- feels more like late John Huston than Peckinpah, actually- the story of a man who goes on a seemingly mad quest to honor another's memory. Would be better, methinks, without the screenplay's chronological noodling (can Guillermo Arriaga even write in chronological order?), which distracts from the simplicity of the narrative. However, much of this is cleared up by the second half, which concentrates almost entirely on Jones' mission, with only a handful of cutaways to his pursuers. Moment out of time: Jones sitting alone in a bar in Mexico, waiting for a telephone call, while a girl plays an out of tune piano in the background and everyone goes about their business- not sure why this scene in particular affected me, but it did. Rating: **1/2.

NEIL YOUNG: HEART OF GOLD (2006, Jonathan Demme, seen in theatre)- half the battle is that I like Neil Young, and since this is the gentle, country-inflected solo Young rather than the more acidic Crazy Horse-backed Young, this is obviously a Movie For Me. And Demme, to his credit, stays out of the way- after all the musicians get a little introduction, it's all about the concert footage. As in STOP MAKING SENSE, the audience is largely incidental to the film, not seen and only heard while applauding. Demme gets a lot of mileage from closeups of various band members, and especially Young himself, whose facial expressions are at times heartrending. Young being Young, there's none of the bombast typical in most stage performances, leaving us with the man, the band, and the music. And sometimes not even the band, as when he stands alone in a spotlight and sings "The Needle and the Damage Done" or in the final number, which is filmed with Young on a bare stage, sitting down, wearing a pair of dorky-looking specs and playing to an empty Ryman Auditorium. Rating: ***.

NINE LIVES (2005, Rodrigo Garcia, seen on DVD)- much better than I was expecting, to be honest, since so often films like this come off as acting exercises, but here Garcia foregrounds the stories, a set of small-scale character vignettes. With a cast like this (Holly Hunter, Sissy Spacek, Glenn Close, etc.), you expect solid acting, but none of the performances are showoff-y, which works in the film's favor. One of the big surprises was that, despite the usually hit-and-miss nature of the stories in films of this sort, there are no real letdowns in the bunch, and a few of the scenes are excellent ("Diana," starring Robin Wright Penn and Jason Isaacs, has justifiably gotten most of the press, but I also have a soft spot for "Samantha," with Amanda Seyfried as a girl who resists the idea of going away to school because she wants to care for her dying dad). In the final segment, the film takes a surprising narrative leap away from the more grounded stories that preceded it, and in my opinion it works, although I can see why some might believe otherwise. Certainly worth your time. Rating: ***.

THE TRIAL OF JOAN OF ARC (1962, Robert Bresson, seen on Turner Classic Movies)- I don't usually watch television, but I felt like I could make an exception for one of Bresson's rarest, showing in a one-time engagement on TCM. And oh man, was it worth it- pretty much what you'd expect from a Bresson Jeanne d'Arc story, but in a good way- his trademark austerity actually helps to underline the dehuminizing nature of Joan's trials and incarceration. Surprising, how much character complexity comes through despite the fact that Bresson stuck to trial transcripts- we see a young woman who is strong but frightened, illuminated by faith and steadfast and unquestioning of it, tempted though she may be with the thought of saving her life. The only other Joan of Arc film with this much depth is Rivette's, and that is nearly four times as long and covers most of her adult life- Dreyer's, towering achievement though it may be, isn't a character study, as character complexity wasn't silent cinema's strong point. I have no idea when I'll get to see this again, but this certainly deserves mention as an important part of Bresson's filmography. As for me, the only "canonical" Bresson I have yet to see is FOUR NIGHTS OF A DREAMER- anybody know where I can find it? Rating: ***1/2.

THE LADY OF MUSASHINO (1951, Kenji Mizoguchi, seen on DVD)- this starts fairly leisurely for such a short film (84 minutes), but as the film transpires it begins to build in power. The theme of the film is the limitations of women in Japanese society, and that the story is set immediately after World War II is crucial, since at that time Japan was struggling to catch up with the rest of the world. The protagonist, however, insists on living as a traditional woman- remaining devoted to an unworthy husband, rebuffing the advances of a cousin who loves her, and living beyond reproach. Meanwhile, others take advantage- another cousin asks her to mortgage her property so that he may take out a loan, her husband cheats and eventually runs off with her mooching cousin's wife, and so on- but she can't bring herself to abandon her old ways, denying herself love and happiness and eventually poisoning herself to save her family legacy. The idea of the old town of Musashino as a metaphor for the dying traditions comes off less heavyhanded that it would in less assured hands, and sets up a beautiful final shot- a pan across rural Musashino to reveal a modern city just over the hill. Rating: ***1/2.


Jason_Alley said...

You're totally right about that scene in "The Three Burials..." - even though I wasn't a huge fan of the movie, that scene did feel special.

Glad you dug "Nine Lives" - I really did, I'm looking forward to watching it again when I show my Mom.

Steve said...

I dunno -- maybe that scene in "Estrada" was good. By that time, though, I was so consumed with hatred for the film that I didn't notice.