Sunday, July 13, 2008

Week of June 23rd:

Buchanan Rides Alone (1958): At first, I thought this would be leading into another thorny moral allegory on the level of Decision at Sundown, maybe something about the nature of mob justice. Certainly, Randolph Scott's unflappable affability seemed to be hiding something more sinister. So I can say I was blindsided when the film started taking cues from that sneaky bemusement and twisted itself into a sharp comedy of venality, as Scott attempts to keep a young Mexican from getting his neck stretched while letting a greedy clan of brothers and cousins lay each other out. The darker aspects of human nature so favored by the Boetticher/Scott Westerns gets a thorough siring-out while the tone gets lightened considerably; what emerges is a delectable black amusement with Scott as the steel-eyed jester in the center of the hurricane. The rare Western that could conceivably be called droll. Grade: B+

The Goddess (1934): Chinese silent feature moves through prostitute-based melodramatics that must have been creaky even back in 1934, but does so with a sense of genuine heartbreak and an unexpected level of bluntness that keep the film watchable. Ruan Lingyu does well by the title role; director Wu Yonggang mostly keeps the film moving but every now and then throws in a nice directorial flourish. More valuable for its peek into social mores of the time than as entertainment, but not bad really. Grade: B-

The Hottie and the Nottie (2008): While watching this reviled romcom, I had something of a revelation: Paris Hilton isn't bereft of talent. I'm not going to say that she's ready for Merchant-Ivory or anything, but she can do light fizzy entertainments -- she exhibits a fine sense of self-possession and demonstrates that she can sell a decent line of dialogue. (I'll admit to chuckling at a sweetness-and-light warning she hollers at a stalker.) She wouldn't even appear atop a list entitled Worst Young Blond Blue-Eyed Actresses Who Starred in the Remake of House of Wax, and in an alternate world (i.e. one where she wasn't Paris Bloody Hilton), she could easily slide into a career as a third-tier ingenue a la Emmanuelle Chriqui. Her problem, then, isn't one of acting but of interacting; Ms. Hilton generally seems to be emoting in a vacuum, playing to her costars instead of with them. This isn't something that really works for The Hottie and the Nottie -- the film is of course not a monologue piece, and the air of unattainability she projects at all times rubs against her character's accessible-goddess characterization -- but I fail to see what differentiates her turn as "hottie" Cristabel from, say, the average Parker Posey performance. The problem, at root, is that her baggage as America's foremost spoiled rich twat keeps people from looking at her without daggers, and as it goes for her performance so it goes for the film that contains it: To see so much hatred and venom slung at a harmless, silly '80s throwback seems like wasted energy. It's not a good film, but neither is it really distinct from any number of recent teen-oriented films currently rotting in the depths of HBO's library, and it's certainly not The End of Cinema. The gross-out factor is needlessly higher than the average genre entry, owing to the times in which it's made, and the filmmaking craft is... well, I'll say sloppy. But it's still pretty generic, worthy of a shrug and not much else. Calm the fuck down world. Grade: C

Lancelot of the Lake (1974): Robert Bresson takes on the Arthurian myth and comes up with the anti-Camelot, a film without Romantic heromaking or gallantry. Bresson picks up at the end of the quest for the Holy Grail when everything in the legend is crumbling to nothing, metaphorically expressing the increasing pessimism about modern life exhibited in the rest of his latter-day work. He also signifies an atrophied spiritual presence by concentrating on the bodily realities of everyday existence; blood runs freely, armor clanks, swords clang and people spend their time politicking, but there's no evidence of a guiding hand. There's some hinting that Lancelot may be a Jesus figure, but his resurrection and return offers no spiritual salvation, merely a dirty muddy end. An exhausted film of physical brutality and cosmic silence; some dry stretches, tough to take, but overall worthwhile. Grade: B

Mon Oncle (1958): Good-natured and wistful, Jacques Tati's hilarious comedy captures a moment in time where everything is irrevocably changing. Monsieur Hulot, Tati's befuddled Everyman, and Hulot's peripatetic young nephew stand on one side of a generational divide, with his pipe and overcoat and insistence on taking the stairs; on the other side is his sister and her husband, forever fascinated with the newest and shiniest electronic things. (Never mind that they get trapped in their garage from time to time.) Appropriately enough, the big, broad comedic setpieces see Tati hearkening back towards another old-fashioned format (silent slapstick) to take the piss out of modernity, yet the rhythms are gentle instead of frenetic, owing a lot to Tati's incredible formal dexterity and his willingness to sit and watch a situation unfold rather than prod it into unfolding. One only has to watch the delirious controlled chaos of the punctured fountain gag or the dazzling use of set construction and light in the bit where Hulot makes a nighttime excursion to fix a bit of wounded plant life to feel the puckish joy that beams from the film; one imagines Tati directing this with a lopsided grin on his face. Yet there's still a melancholy at its heart, an elegy for things lost and forgotten in the rampage towards modernity. There's a lot of laughs, yet the essential sadness in the message comes through: We will spend the rest of our lives running into poles and calling it convenience. Grade: A-

Story of a Prostitute (1965): Relatively straightforward for a Seijun Suzuki joint, which is to say it's still three measures more delirious than the average war flick. Suzuki keeps his more outré impulses in check for this tale of a woman who escapes a bad romantic situation by volunteering to be a whore to a company of soldiers during WWII, but he still lets his cynicism run wild and keeps the pace at a rolling boil. Anti-war message comes through pretty vituperatively even as the battle scenes are exquisitely crafted; that the ending comes off as both tragic and ironically triumphant is pretty keen. Grade: B+

WALL·E (2008): First off: Holy shit, is this ever gorgeous-looking. Even at its ugliest (i.e. the opening act on a garbage-choked Earth), there's a visual poetry in this that simply sings. By the time we get to something like the mid-space ballet for robot and fire extinguisher, enrapturement is nigh well impossible to avoid. The beauty coexists with the ugly, which is proper given the way the plot eventually develops. Even though this is ostensibly a kid's film from Pixar, the best kidfilm company in the business, there's an element of caustic social satire that mushrooms when WALL·E arrives at the Axiom and finds a human population fattened and made inactive by dozens of robots designed to cater to every function and need one could have. Cute though the film is, there's still something distressing about a future where humanity is depicted as inessential to its own survival, and it's not coincidental that the rising action and climax of the film sees one man casting aside the easy way and finally learning a measure of self-reliance. In that vein, the ending, which at first glance seems inappropriately rosy, speaks to the capability and ingenuity of man when working in tandem with machines as opposed to letting the machines do all the work. (This is summed up in a lovely credit coda showing the evolution of the new world through the evolution of art from primitive days to modernity.) Final note: The 2001 influence is obvious, but I see a lot of Tati in here too. Grade: A-


Blogger Pacze Moj said...

Good to see you back!

2:09 PM  
Blogger Steve C. said...

Thanks! Feels good to be back into the swing of things...

1:15 PM  
Blogger James said...

re: Paris Hilton: Her problem is that her public persona has been so forced down the average American's throat that short of delivering an Oscar-caliber performance she won't ever get any respect. Not that she's begging for it.

If she had starred in a few movies first and then let everyone know how much better than them she is, perhaps it would be a different story.

re: WALL-E: I've read a lot of trite fussing over this or that message in the pic. It saddens me to know that an extremely-light environmental message and a critique of laziness can provoke such moronic reactions from people of all sorts of political stances.

9:38 PM  
Blogger Steve C. said...

But... but... ideologies! We cannot forget to which ideologies we subscribe, and we cannot fail to spit thunder and fire at something that does not jibe with our ideologies! Otherwise, people might confuse us for the thinkin' type.

9:08 PM  

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