My Week in Movies: September 17, '11

The Long Goodbye
Robert Altman, 1973
Fans of the more recent works "The Big Lebowski" and "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang" will find a cozy place to linger in Altman's Raymond Chandler adaptation (and by no accidental conjunction I've learned, as "Lebowski" is loosely based upon "The Big Sleep" while "Kiss Kiss" is largely inspired by and referential to the author's work). Elliot Gould vividly portrays recurrent Chandler protagonist Philip Marlowe as a likable man living slightly below radar who stumbles in to a case he begrudgingly sees through to its indelible end due to minor, often misinterpreted personal involvement, even though all he really wants is to find his runaway cat. Other domestic pets gone astray surround him throughout, suggesting his own derelict manner. Altman's trend of a main character's wittily running commentary being audible no matter their framed position is both present and, in a way, comforting.

Cœurs (Hearts)
Alain Resnais, 2006
AKA "Private Fears in Public Places". An odd choice for a first Resnais some may say, this borderline surreal, intertwining multi-portrait of star-crossed lovers and their lives' dualities, hypocrisies and moreover their varying, mutually affecting and sympathy-ready social plights enraptures, casting a serene spell and effortlessly captivating for its duration - a duration which, by the time it had passed, I wished was doubly, triply, quadruply as long. I did not want to put down these characters nor their rich environments. Screenshots after the jump.

Straw Dogs
Sam Peckinpah, 1971
Hey guys, guess how I was reminded to check this one out? Original, huh? Anyway, while I try to avoid cliché as much as I plan on avoiding the alluded-to Hollywood remake and hope that shows (or doesn't, rather), I almost want to use "tour de force" to enthusiastically describe Peckinpah's portrait of intellect's gradual path to discerning the will and methods by which to combat proudly prurient insipidity within and without a new domain. Almost. The ambiguous domestic and social tension brilliantly builds scene after scene, attaining a palpable fervor as your mind races to make heads or tails... before the precise focus is fumbled in act three. The whole is very good, really, and that more harshly lit final act is probably the best-shot stretch of the entire piece (Peckinpah's implementation of Dutch angles is superbly effective), but the agonizing exhilaration kicks down a few rungs, without completely falling apart, as our climax settles in.

Nicolas Winding Refn, 2011
One of the year's most anticipated for yours truly, "Drive" won me from its sizzling start - not that I was playing hard-to-get - with killer '80s-sounding tunage accompanying its increasingly tense insular vantage. From there it's a slow burn, and does it ever burn. A stone-faced Ryan Gosling, whom we follow closely through Refn's again-morphed, now engrossingly collected urban aesthetic, looks like a photograph - an unmoving receptacle for our own emotions - before he is spurred toward his goal. An underlying psychological profile is present, of one relatively honorable descending deeper and deeper through the works of much bloodier hands. We gaze in to startling cascades of viscera while eagerly deciphering our protagonist's state of mind, inescapably amongst and transitorily between it all. At once Gosling's guarded wheelman is canny in these affairs, cunning as he is quietly shaken, and eventually we see perhaps his most telling expression at a time his face is further concealed by a false visage - when he is soundly rapt in the observation of his deeds. A proponent of pulp revival, "Drive" - to Michael Mann's "Thief" (and undoubted others I remain unversed in) as "Kill Bill" is to "Lady Snowblood", etcetera - will disappoint many, but make bonafide Refn fans of many more. Listen to further thoughts on Episode 21 of Reel Time.

Wicker Park
Paul McGuigan, 2004
As anticipated upon viewing its trailer back in 2004, mirrored romance mystery "Wicker Park" is more or less "Vanilla Sky, Jr." (or "Abres los ojos, hijo", whichever you prefer; coincidentally "Park" is a also an American remake, 1996's Vincent Cassel-starring "L'appartement" being its source), but is confident enough to define itself in its own Focus Features-esque right with the help of Peter Sova's impressive cinematography, clever cross-edit eyeline toying and reverence for the established stylings of such icons as Argento, Ruiz and Dreyer. Could have done without the Coldplay, though. Screenshots after the jump.

Steamboat Bill, Jr.
Buster Keaton & Charles Reisner, 1928
Though I have the utmost respect for the man (and how can one not?), I haven't yet found myself too head-over-heels for Mr. Keaton's work. That said, the breezy "Steamboat Bill, Jr." is perfectly passable in every way (except maybe grammatically, as one title card in the scene depicted headache-inducingly reads, "must of"), growing more so with each successive set piece or stunt sequence. It's innocently pleasant to watch Keaton do his thing, carting amicably snowballing chaos in tow where'er he tread.

The Beaver
Jodie Foster, 2011
While "The Beaver" never quite coalesces and eventually grows out of its depth at feature length, its central portrait of an emotionally razed man making a last ditch effort to escape his past and begin family life anew is nimbly carried thanks in large part to its strong opening, in which a reclusive Mel Gibson seems to draw inspiration from watching David Carradine in "Kung Fu"... inspiration to asphyxiate himself a la the fallen star, that is... before entering an hilariously well-performed sequence of exchange with his own hand. Really, it is this performance that makes the film, in that it is never hidden Gibson's mouth is indeed the source of the beaver's voice (the beaver itself being of quite a deceptively simple and adept design). Gibson essentially portrays two characters - one exuberantly verbose, one silently sequestered - to illustrate a singular inner dynamic, his face portraying the dual emotion. He speaks the very words his expression responds to from a separate perspective, not unlike the simultaneous vocal and revolutionary guitar work of Jimi Hendrix. Screenshots after the jump.

Further first-time viewings:

Thief - Michael Mann, 1981
James Caan's thief makes for a far more interesting safe-cracker than Val Kilmer's from Mann's "Heat". To him, as illustrated in the film's key highlight of an opening sequence, his moonlit scores are sex. As in that later cops 'n' robbers picture, however, the central heist relies more on noise than anything - the louder the better, in Mann's apparent opinion (incidentally, it has only been with the strobing tommy guns of "Public Enemies" that I have found this mentality fruit-bearing). This is a quality picture with worthily memorable moments aplenty, but I'm not sure it ever quite coheres. Though it maintains the feel of a '70s exploitation flick without too much actual, overt exploitation, it drags with job talk and a not-so-intriguing relationship involving the oppositely very intriguing Tuesday Weld. Listen to further thoughts on Episode 21 of Reel Time.

Splice - Vincenzo Natali, 2009
One of the more intelligent modern "B" sci-horror monster movies - and it is proudly rooted in as much, with welcome twinges going back to the 1950s - "Splice" carries a rhythmic sensibility always appealing in this sort of fare, but may have benefitted from another character perspective or two (offered with the understanding a strict tonal balance is being adhered to). It occasionally reminds of the better of Argento's "Masters of Horror" installment, "Jenifer", and similarly benefits from a mostly practical creature. I feel odd to call it predictable, considering the central character dynamic shift is explicitly unlike anything I've seen, but I accurately guessed every development a mile away, which depleted the "wow" factor. Maybe the foreshadowing was too blatant? I mean, remember the shot of the cook in "The Hunt for Red October"? Actually, I don't; I haven't seen it... I'm just making a "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang" reference.

The Social Network - David Fincher, 2010
Exhaustingly speeding forward, snapping its fingers impatiently for us to keep up, "The Social Network" does take a few awkwardly pedestrian breathers but mostly maintains its imposing, thereby Fincher-esque stand-offishness throughout. This is probably one of the recently more popularized director's better works, though that's not saying much considering glorified hack-turds like "Se7en", "Panic Room" and - I shudder to even mention it - "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button". In spite of this, I don't feel it ever quite rises above trivially being "that movie about Facebook". We all, for the most part, use Facebook, and at least at one point in our respective lives it has probably been a heavily relied-upon social outlet, so the game-changing website's controversial inception feels relevant enough, but it's still "that movie about Facebook". Due to questionable machine gun pacing I remain interested all the while, trying to pick up every poked-in plot point, though I can't help but to keep demanding, "Who the hell cares?"

The Switch - Josh Gordon & Will Speck, 2010
"The Switch" takes place in one of the more imaginary incarnations of New York City I've seen, wherein the population has depleted, no one ages over a span of around eight years, purses are securely left unattended on sidewalks, children can safely wander unsupervised and bumper sticker wisdom reigns (well, maybe that last part is unfortunately all too realistic). Worst of all in this pristine NYC, personality traits seem purely of nature with no nurture to be found. Jason Bateman's characteristic, agreeably cynical observations do charm, as does Patrick Wilson's mere presence while Jeff Goldblum easily makes off with what little show exists to be stolen, providing a few healthy laughs in an otherwise barren comedy. Sometimes these light, star-driven direct-to-DVD affairs can be fun - for example I'm casually fond of the Tom Cavanagh/Heather Graham rom-com "Gray Matters" and the Paul Schneider vehicle "How to Lose Your Lover" - and this may work for some, but I am not entirely part of that some.

Videodrome - David Cronenberg, 1983
Cronenberg's crude cautionary tale of increasing reliance on idiot boxes is like Gilliam's "Brazil" meets Craven's "A Nightmare on Elm Street". Take that as you will.

Che - Steven Soderbergh, 2008
This "Thin Rojo Line" is duller than dull.

The Invention of Lying - Ricky Gervais & Matthew Robinson, 2009
There is a difference between telling the truth all the time and grossly spouting your every thought, particularly considering some of those thoughts in this case are said either in sarcasm - a form of dishonesty - or with the intention of hiding something. It feels as though, as opposed to having an inability to lie, these people are simply emotionless, and in that the lead character is given emotion through which we sympathize said character is allowed to access dishonesty when confronted with baleful conflict. There is a difference between saying "It's going to be okay" in attempt to rescue a suicidal person and inelegantly doing the same amongst patients at a last-legs nursing home (called "A Sad Place for Hopeless Old People"). Of course as the film continues, our characters learn to find integrity in such vapidly desperate statements... when they're not caught in an obligatory romance plot, that is. Some ideas are clever, such as the film industry being made up of historical lecture videos since fictional stories would be lies, and one of the harshest (if briefest) comedic criticisms of religion since "Monty Python's The Meaning of Life". Plenty of fun cameos abound, as well, but nothing of real further worth is to be found in this detrimentally half-baked piece.

Push - Paul McGuigan, 2009
After being won over by "Wicker Park", I sought out another McGuigan/Sova collaboration. Hm, where's that opera guy from J.D.'s fantasies in "Scrubs" when I need him? You know, this guy. Like a watered-down, young adult section version of a Neveldine & Taylor, "Push" is constantly reminding its audience how hip it's trying to be, pleading they buy in. It contains, like so many unremarkable films frustratingly do, a meager smattering of striking shots that pop up all too briefly, never once rivaling the new millennium Tony Scott picture it seems to aspire to be. A single, annoying screenshot after the jump.

Total: 15

Rewatches (3): Old Joy (Reichardt, 2006), Private Fears in Public Places (Resnais, 2006), The Beaver (Foster, 2011)
- I do hesitate to make it a matter of gender, but it amazes me female director Kelly Reichardt was able to so perfectly capture contemporarily innate maleness from male perspectives in "Old Joy". The film is all the introspective freedom of a Western road trip, right there in your living room. It embraces, it comforts, it soothes... man, what a great movie.

- I have begun taking in Mark Cousins' "The Story of Film - An Odyssey", currently airing Saturdays on the U.K.'s More 4 in 15 installments. The comprehensive series is, thus far, further proof film school is a waste of money - you'll just be shown programs like this you could easily watch on your own for a price roughly $70,000 cheaper/yr. Learn by doing.
- Also, I totally did not intend for this entry to be overrun by sulking men turned slightly from camera. Just happens that way, sometimes! Unintentional themes!

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