Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Keeping Mum (2006)

Toothless and timid excuse for a black comedy from Britain, where the dark laughs are usually effective. This film, though, is working on the same sort of genteel level as Saving Grace and Calendar Girls, where any taboo material is sweetened and pounded out into a bland, sticky paste that is perfect for consumption by little old ladies and soccer moms but leaves us with a taste for grittier fare wanting. Maggie Smith is quite good as the murderous granny whose presence revitalizes a dysfunctional British family, but she's about all the film has going for it. (Well, okay, Tamsin Egerton's beautiful breasts have their charms as well.) None of the gags pay off in any meaningful way, save for maybe a mild chuckle here and there, and the narrative's eleventh-hour swerve into life lessons and warm fuzzies is lame as all get-out. Turning serial murder, voyeurism and infidelity into ostensibly-charming laff material is something of a dubious achievement, methinks; basically, this is the tea-and-crumpets version of Visitor Q, which was itself a gloss on Teorema, and you'd be better off watching either of those significantly more passionate works of art.

Grade: C
Girl Slaves of Morgana Le Fay (1971)

Hooray for artsploitation! Adeptly riding the line between lovely and sleazy, this femme-love-heavy flight into the fantastic tickles both my sense of aesthetics and my sense of lust. Bruno Gantillon utilizes a vibrant color palate and a sharp sense of unreality to lend a touch of needed respectability to his tale of witches, magic and lesbians; what in most hands would be nothing more than a barely "Barely Legal" scenario is thus transformed into a sort of modern-day fairy tale. That touch of respectability does, in the film's slack midsection, turn into a liability, as Gantillon's stylization starts to feel remote and aloof, like he can't be bothered to get down to ground level with us perverts (and it doesn't help that the semblance of plot we're given screeches to a halt, either); fortunately, he and the film recover for a marvelously screwy Sapphic climax, with all manner of naked chicks and interpretive dancing and midget abuse, psychological and otherwise. (Gurth the dwarf is probably the film's most interesting character, at turns monstrous, sympathetic and pitiable.) Fun stuff, if not exactly great; why is it that nobody, aside from possibly Jean-Jacques Brisseau, is making films like this today?

Grade: B-
Serenity (2005)

Don't know how much I missed, having never seen the TV show "Firefly," but Joss Whedon's cinematic debut seemed fine to me. I'm sure that a passing familiarity with the characters may have filled in some of the narrative choppiness in the opening half-hour, but once the waters settled Serenity turns into a solidly entertaining sci-fi yarn, leavened with both the snark and the heart that have become Whedon's stock in trade. The committed ensemble (including guest star Chiwetel Ejiofor, skewing his natural sardonicness darker than usual) helps matters; the 'leaf on the wind' scene is arguably superior to any setpiece in the three Star Wars prequels, probably because it maintains its unassuming nature even as it thrills.

Grade: B

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Big Leaguer (1953)

In which I attempt to grapple with a significant director's oeuvre via his debut film without, you know, having seen any of his other films.

Sounds like a fool's errand, I know. But then, I never claimed to not be a fool. Besides, we all know how much fun it is to go far afield and then try to come back unscathed, and how often do I get to indulge my auteurist impulses? So here goes:

Big Leaguer, the debut film of Robert Aldrich, is an important entry in his filmography, as it presents in nascent form a theme he would return to time and again: how men react when placed in high-pressure situations. Seems like a lot of import to place on a simple work-for-hire B-movie about baseball, I know. But what better way to celebrate the career of a man who, with films like Kiss Me Deadly, The Dirty Dozen and Apache, made it his raison d'etre to elevate B-movie material into the realms of the mythic?

Big Leaguer concerns a group of young, hungry would-be ballplayers at a New York Giants training camp overseen by former ballplayer Hans Lobart (Edward G. Robinson). The kids know that this camp could be their first step towards a career in the major leagues, so the pressure's on them to impress; meanwhile, Lobart has been informed by his daughter Christy (Vera-Ellen) that the bean counters in the front office want results or he might be out of a job. So there's a lot of people with a lot to prove, and the narrative centers on three individuals: Lobart, cocky pitching prospect Bobby Bronson (Richard Jaeckel) and shy, quiet third baseman Adam Polachuk (Jeff Richards), who might be the legitimate discovery that Lobart needs.

Having set our conflicts in motion, Big Leaguer observes what its characters do when put under pressure. Lobart, older and more experienced than any of his charges, takes everything in stride. Bronson uses his brash mentality and obvious talent to hide his nervousness but has trouble holding together when he gets into jams; meanwhile, Polachuk is serene and unassuming on the field, dealing with the pressure to succeed admirably, until a different set of family-related stressors threaten to push him off track. It's also interesting to note that both young ballplayers have been given a twin bunkmate who shares their neuroses: Bronson has a double in showboat center fielder Julie Davis (William Campbell), all jokes and braggadaccio, while Polachuk's doppleganger is first baseman Tippy Mitchell (Bill Crandall), a friendly but awkward kid with daddy issues -- his father is legendary ballplayer Wally Mitchell (Frank Ferguson) -- and a realistic sense of his own shortcomings as a ballplayer.

But then, there's a lot of doubling going on in Big Leaguer, and I don't just mean long shots into the gap in left field. Bronson's egoism leads him into conflict with Lobart; in a great bit of business, he responds to Lobart's attempt to take him down a peg by throwing at the elder's head. Yet, this action is mirrored by a bit of self-sacrifice midway through where, in the midst of a bad outing, he deliberately throws a pitch at Polachuk's head in an effort to rouse him from a depression-induced slump. (The teamwork theme that would seem natural to a film like this doesn't get touched on much as you'd expect, given that Aldrich's most famous film is The Dirty Dozen, but a glance here and there is thrown in its direction.) Similarly, Polachuk's funk is brought upon by fears of disappointing his immigrant father, leading him to a crisis of conscience which pushes him to consider quitting the team; implicit in this crisis is that, by obeying one father figure (his father), he'd be letting down another (Lobart). Then there's the idea of contrasting Polachuk's father, who sees baseball as a useless diversion, with Cuban ballplayer Chuy Aguilar, for whom baseball represents opportunity. I don't know how much of this is intentional, but it's fun to spot.

The film Aldrich crafts from these materials is not high art by anyone's standards, but it is a genuinely entertaining bit of second-bill unpretentiousness, especially for a unrepentant old-school-baseball sentimentalist like myself. Like I said, all the themes that run through Big Leaguer are things that Aldrich would come back to -- the men under pressure (Attack!, The Big Knife), the look at how men function in groups (The Dirty Dozen, Ten Seconds to Hell), and even the mirror images (Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, Hush... Hush, Sweet Charlotte) would all be employed by Aldrich later and more effectively in his career. Judging from Dennis Cozzalio's exhaustive writeup, Emperor of the North may be the ultimate expression of all these tropes. There's even a brash youngster who clashes with a stoic old-timer.

None of this diminishes the pleasant charms of Big Leaguer. It's skillfully directed with a minimum of fuss, and it hits all the marks it needs to hit with enough professionalism that the familiarity goes down easy. Edward G. Robinson, of course, is the shit, and his jovial, unassuming turn here sets the tone for the film. (You haven't lived until you've seen Robinson boogie down to jazz music, as he does briefly here.) It may, in the end, be merely a fun B-movie, but fun it is indeed, fun enough for me to forgive all the bashing of my beloved Dodgers (though seeing the Shot Heard 'Round the World again was painful). Plus, it introduces a future Hollywood all-star, and the throughline is there. Aldrich was destined for great things, and the proof was within his debut the whole time.

(Postscript: My favorite bit of Big Leaguer actually has nothing to do with anything I've written about, but I'd be remiss if I didn't mention it. It occurs in the opening narration. The narration in Big Leaguer is mostly superfluous and annoying, the epitome of bad voiceover as imposed by a useless framing device which gets forgotten by film's end. There is, however, a bit in the opening where the journalist character who serves as the narrator is talking about the dreams and aspirations of all the kids who show up at this camp. One of the lines he says goes, "This is the way it is in the big time," and I couldn't help but think about Aldrich himself quietly drawing a parallel between these fresh-faced hopefuls and himself, also at bat in the big leagues for the first time. What can I say, it made me smile.)

Grade: B

Thursday, October 05, 2006

A Man Escaped (1956)

(Requested by drift wood.)

It's official -- Robert Bresson is now one of my favorite directors. I've been liking him more every time I encounter another of his films, but even so, I wasn't quite prepared for the sheer enveloping magnificence of A Man Escaped. Bresson's ascetic purity of form often reflects the single-minded intent of his main characters, and here this expression reaches its singular apex; the intense focus of Fontaine coupled with the inherent conflict in confinement narratives breeds a situation wherein Bresson's laser-eyed attention to detail and careful craftsmanship seem an organic enhancement of the film rather than a conscious affect. To put it another way, this is the rare film that never feels slow despite a general lack of incidence. The fun in escape narratives is never in the escape itself, it's in the process by which the escape is effected, and this is the logical extension of that -- it's maybe the only escape film that's all process. Fontaine's meticulousness, mirrored by Bresson's meticulousness, gets us involved with his every move in a way few films dream of; the mere act of grinding a spoon into a trowel, here, seems like the most exciting and tense-making thing in the world. Also not to be discounted is the spiritual/Christian aspects of the film -- the process of escaping is a pretty handy metaphor for spiritual rebirth (Bresson even has a character offer a relevant quote by Nicodemus) -- for Bresson's spiritual makeup is not a naive or helpless one. So goes an exchange between Fontaine and an imprisoned pastor:

Pastor: "Read and pray. God will save you."
Fontaine: "Only if we give him a hand."

Later, Fontaine says, "It would be too easy if God handled everything." Clearly, Bresson believes that God helps those who help themselves. As such, through the efforts of Bresson and lead actor Francois Leterrier (offering as crafty and intense a performance as any in the history of cinema), A Man Escaped becomes a tale about the triumph of the human spirit in all possible meanings of the word 'spirit.' So, yeah. This austere, beautifully crafted masterwork hasn't a moment of wasted time or effort and thus stands as a testament to the magic that can happen in art when all superfluous gestures are stripped away. Even the sound design is exemplary in both its economy and its effectiveness. A Man Escaped is good for the mind, good for the spirit and good for the inner ten-year-old boy who likes to see people escaping from things. Could this be the perfect movie? I'll bet it's damn close.

Grade: A

Monday, October 02, 2006

Lessons of Darkness (1992)

Werner Herzog's forceful film about the aftermath of the first war in Iraq opens with Herzog narrating, "The first creature we encountered tried to communicate something to us" (in reference to a hazmat-suited cleanup worker waving the camera crew away from the site of a burning oil well), and it closes with a quote from Blaine Pascal that reads, "The collapse of the stellar universe will occur like creation -- in grandiose splendor." These two bookends say everything about Herzog's approach to this extraordinary project. At once horrifying and beautiful, alien and recognizable, Lessons of Darkness is a wondrous and ruinous feat of filmmaking. Rather than attempt to make sense of the devastation amidst the flaming oil wells of Kuwait, Herzog admits that the situation is senseless beyond verbal expression (literally, in the scene where he profiles the Kuwaiti woman who has lost her voice) and focuses on potent imagery, concentrating mainly on the wells. The fire and smoke that erupts constantly from the wells have a sort of cruel poetry to them, as the clouds form into strangely lovely shapes that almost distract from the horrific reality of what they represent. The oil itself shows up a lot as well; whether falling from the sky as a virulent black rain, bubbling in a lake or leeching into the body of a child, causing him to cry tears of obsidian, the region's oil infects and corrupts everything it sees. (Implicit social critique or just accident of inferrence?) This is among the most visually stunning and emotionally disruptive films I've yet seen. It's no accident that Herzog quotes Revelations in his narration midfilm -- through his documentary-as-tone-poem approach, Herzog has done the sci-fi genre one better. He's fashioned a film that feels genuinely apocalyptic.

Grade: A
L'Avventura (1960)

"I simply loathe it, yet I must conform." This line, spoken early in Michelangelo Antonioni's penetrating portrait of aimlessness and ennui in the modern world, cuts straight to the heart of his argument. In the world Antonioni sees, experience has been replaced by sensation; nothing carries any weight and everything is ephemeral because nothing holds interest for very long. (A journalist comments, "The whole thing is stale," during the Gloria Perkins scene, and though he's referring to the fame of Ms. Perkins, the statement undoubtedly applies to the lifestyle of consumption on display here.) The constant application of sensation, the numbing effect of the unquenchable desire for the shock of the new, wreaks havoc with the inner life of the protagonists; rather than deal with the painful aftershocks of soul death, the people in this film shut that part of themselves off entirely. When they speak, their words mean nothing, since there's no emotion behind it; as such, they stop being individuals and become mere functions of their environment. So it should only seem natural that the environment would eventually swallow one of these people whole -- they've already disappeared into their lifestyles, so what's the difference if they disappear for good? Sandro tells Anna right before she vanishes, "Words are becoming less and less necessary, they create misunderstandings," which can also be said about Antonioni's storytelling approach here. It makes perfect sense, using gorgeous images and gestures to tell a story about people obsessed with appearance and who speak in meaningless phrases; the difference is that Antonioni's images carry all the weight that his characters disallow themselves. It's a gorgeous and haunting thing, with a marvelously blank performance from Monica Vitti that hits all the notes that were squeezed out of Red Desert. the last shot, in particular, offers either a glimmer of hope (the birthing of empathy!) or a nihilistic endgame (two soulless beings uniting via their soullessness), and it's to Antonioni's eternal credit that either possibility is satisfying and fascinating in its own right.

Grade: A-