Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Movies Without Melissa

Over the past couple of weeks, my wife has been away--first to a conference, then to a family funeral--for about six days. What have I done with myself during that time alone, besides take care of the girls the way a good husband and father should? I've watched movies my wife isn't interested in seeing, of course.

Melissa is enough of a reader that we already often retreat to different corners of the house for the hour or so we have after we put the kids down before we head to sleep ourselves. But I'll usually be using that time for grading papers or writing or reading the blogs; only occasionally will I pop in a dvd to watch one of the dozes of films on my ever-changing "to-see" list, because generally when we see movies, we see them together. But there are plenty of films on that list that Melissa has no interest in watching, so I tend to put them off until I can safely abandon her for a while and indulge in my passion for the violent, the weird, the off-beat, the rare, the historical. Since she's been abandoning me lately, it's meant late lights and lots of crossing-off of films I've meant to get around to for years. Herewith, a brief report on the past 13 days (in alphabetical order):

Aguirre, the Wrath of God: good, but not great. I suspect I would have considered it great if I'd seen it on the big screen; the power of Klaus Kinski's depiction of a soldier's descent into madness and how he drags of 16th-century expedition off down the Amazon with him seemed to depend to a great deal on the background music, and the expansive visuals of the endless, dispiriting water and jungle which Werner Herzog filmed all around him. As it was, I found it affecting, but not grandiose, and I think that's what the movie was aiming for.

The Darjeeling Limited: it started out funnier, and better, than any other Wes Anderson film I've seen (and I've seen them all). Yes, you had all Anderson's usual so-hip-it's-ironic-or-is-it? tricks: the non sequiters, the brilliantly oddball musical cues, the slow motion tracking shots. But I loved it nonetheless. It was a hipster road movie, and it had me giggling like a hyena. (Best bit: when Jack Whitman--Jason Schwartzman--goes for his mace to break-up a fight between his brothers.) But then Anderson I guess started feeling guilty about using poverty-stricken Indian villages as a backdrop to a satire of secular upper-class Americans searching for themselves, and decided to give the movie Real Meaning. Which slowed it down, made it predictable, and less fun.

Eraserhead: no one can say that David Lynch didn't start out every bit as weird as he has ever been. I've never been a huge Lynch fan, and this film--his first--didn't convert me, but my respect for him remains. It's a crude, surreal, sometimes shockingly blunt horror-film expression of some of the ugliest fears human beings have about love and sex and marriage and childbirth. It is also frankly nonsensical, especially with the brief interlude which suggests, so far as I can tell, that the main character might actually be a No. 2 pencil having a dream.

The Last Temptation of Christ: my old friend Matt Stannard recommended I see this years ago, when I went along with the huge crowds and checked out Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ. My verdict is like my verdict for Aguirre above--good, but not great. The scenes of Jesus's arrest, torture, and crucifixion were handled much better than the overloaded gore of Gibson's approach--David Bowie actually made a find Pontius Pilate, I thought--but one thing you have to give Gibson credit for is that his film, from beginning to blood-drenched end, had a consistent theology throughout. Whereas Scorsese's film didn't. I'm not criticizing his choice to tell a story where Jesus is confused, struggling, filled with doubt and partly just making it up as he goes along; I just was less than satisfied with, in the wake of giving us that kind of Jesus, Scorsese gives us an ending in which Christianity appears to happen anyway, suggesting that God is really the master of the situation, an implication which isn't supported the rest of the way through. Did Jesus give in to His final temptation to leave the cross, and God later put Him back on there when He changed His mind, or was it all a dream? Scorsese kind of likes those kind of endings, but when he's talking about God, they may not be the best way to end a film.

Letters from Iwo Jima: kind of deadening, as war flicks go. Which is surely very true to life; the story of the battle of Iwo Jima, as far as the Japanese soldiers who fought and died there were concerned, was almost entirely about slowly starving to death in tunnels as the American war machine slowly, painfully, one by one, took them out. So I give Eastwood credit for putting together an ambitious, honest war film. It was just one that gave me a sinking, grey feeling throughout, and I'm not sure how intentional that was.

McCabe and Mrs. Miller: I'd put it in the middle of my personal ranking of Altman films. As with Lynch, I'm not a major fan of Altman, but I respect the kind of work he did. Some of the films he made I think are first-class stories on film: wickedly funny, stylistically unique, surprisingly (sometimes eeriely) insightful. Nashville, one of my favorite movies, a creepy and brilliantly panoramic slice of Americana, falls into this category. McCabe, by contrast, was doing Altman's frequent trick of capturing as much of life as possible on the margins of the film's supposed main story, but only succeeded about half the time. Possibly his insistence on staging and shooting the film so naturalistically became, ultimately, itself a kind of fake artiface (is it really plausible that John McCabe (Warren Beatty) will always turn away from the camera and mumble whenever he has a big line to deliver?). It's great to see the Pacific Northwest--in wintertime!--in a western, though.

Pineapple Express: much of it was very, very funny; Red (Danny McBride), the paranoid middle-man who is so high and so stupid that he keeps fighting even after he's shot and bleeding from multiple wounds, was my favorite character, and a couple of scenes--like when Dale (Seth Rogan) and Saul (James Franco)--get spooked for no reason and run like mad men through the woods--are just fall-down funny. But ultimately, I don't know. I think it just might be a fact that drunk people are funnier than stoned people. (As my friend and restauranter Nick Zukin once put it to me: "Drunk people + Hollywood = funny.")

Sweeny Todd: I have to say, a failure as a movie musical. This musical--which I've never seen live, only the filmed Broadway production with the insanely terrific (terrifically insane?) Angela Landsbury--has, in my opinion, Sondheim's greatest score, perfectly melding soaring music and sleazy, blood-soaked melodrama into a soundtrack that's an outrageous black comedy delight. Tim Burton had some fun with some of the visuals, and there was some great creative set-ups and shots for the actors, but ultimately, they just couldn't do what musicals demand: use the song to make their characters persuasive, and the story captivating. In something like Mamma Mia, this doesn't matter: we're just having fun with the songs after all, and the story is irrelevant (and completely stupid, at that). But you can't do that with Sondheim. When you're supposed to be seeing lurid madness and despair in the raw, the movie's singing can only offer you Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter looking like a couple of pissed-off Goths. And besides, couldn't Burton have at least given us that tremendous, haunting final chorus, if only over the credits?


Jacob T. Levy said...

Clearly right about Sweeney Todd. Somehow the Burton-Depp team which seems so perfect only ever caught fire once, with Edward Scissorhands. The rest of the time there's too little *beyond* "It's Burton and Depp doing [e.g.] Sleepy Hollow-- how cool is that?" I'm always rooting for their movies to be as great as it seems like they should be. They look great, but they just sit there.

I got to see Sweeney Todd at the Chicago Lyric Opera-- serious singers doing full justice to the music. It was awesome.

Russell Arben Fox said...

Somehow the Burton-Depp team which seems so perfect only ever caught fire once, with Edward Scissorhands. The rest of the time there's too little *beyond* "It's Burton and Depp doing [e.g.] Sleepy Hollow--how cool is that?"

That captures it exactly, Jacob. "Burton and Depp: two crazy, visionary, outrageous stylists! It's gonna be great!" But, again and again, there not much there beyond the original conceit of them doing stuff together. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was their last straw as far as I'm concerned: the trailer had me convinced it was going to be genius, and instead it was off-putting and slight. I hold out no hope for Alice in Wonderland.

Matt said...

I was modestly disappointed with Sweeney Todd, too. Aguirre is next in my netflix list but I'm not really looking forward to it that much. I have a very small TV so maybe I should just forget it. I like the film version of Last Temptation much less than the book, though the end in the book is convoluted and messy, too, in a way that suggested to me more a difficulty of pulling it off than a complex situation, though that's true, too. Still, the book is good and worth reading.

Douglas said...

Haven't seen Aguirre, but just finished Brasyl, by Ian McDonald, one-third of which is Jesuits in 17th century Brazil and could be very much of a piece with the film. (Apart from the quantum-mechanical knives, but you'll have to read the book to find out how that fits.)

I'm glad that Matt chimed in about the book of Last Temptation, because I was about to do the same without having come closer to reading it than buying Kazantzakis' Odyssey and visiting his grave. The Greek Orthodox Church refused him sacred ground because of Last Temptation, so he got a much better perch in Iraklion. Anyway, I was wondering whether the end of the book wasn't also a bit of a muddle. Matt says yes.