Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Lightning Round 3 (mostly Garbo), and Movie Watch-a-Thon update

I meant to go to a lot more of the Greta Garbo pictures when they were at the Brattle, but I had a bunch of late days at work and couldn't fit them in. Ticked me off, because I hate missing silents.

Anyway, the watch-a-thon continues apace, with three more films seen in the last couple of days. I think we've pretty firmly established that Doillon's films are not my thing; La Puritaine was the same kind of talky torture as La Vengence d'une Femme. Okay, "torture" is a strong word, but... Man, these guys can go on. The near-silent slapstick of Jacques Tati afterward was what might be called a huge relief.

Then, yesterday, I joined my brother Matt and his girlfriend Morgan in Quincy to cathch The Exorcism of Emily Rose, which apparently played into a paper he's got for a class. Good courtroom drama, although it set off my cynicism buzzer early with the "Based on a True Story" caption.

The recap:

Movies seen Monday at the Brattle: (11/14) La Puritaine, Mon Oncle.
Movie seen Tuesday at Flagship Quincy: (11/15) The Exorcism of Emily Rose
Money pledged so far: $50 entry fee + $50 flat donations + $6 x (6 Brattle Films + .5 * 3 other films) = $145
Why the Brattle Theater Matters
Details on the Movie Watch-a-Thon
Where to send you cash in support
Mail me if you'd like to pledge some dollar amount per movie

And now, yet more capsule reviews:


* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 2 October 2005 at Landmark Kendall Square #1 (first-run)

Kids who grow up in the circus dream of running off to join the suburbs; at least, that's the case for 16-year-old Helena (Steaphanie Leonidas). Well, maybe not to the suburbs, but you've got to admit, being part of the failing family business practically since birth has got to have some facets that suck, and she's had just about enough, until her mother falls ill. Then begins an uncomfortable period of forced inactivity, and the inevitable belief that her wayward wish caused it, and then she is somehow whisked away to another world, one of fantastical creatures and impossible environments.

There's a pattern to this sort of movie - characters in one world have doppelgangers in the other, Helena's entrance, at the very least, is the result of her own creativity, things which are figures of speech in our world are rather more literal in theirs. The execution is what matters, and that's pretty above-average here. Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean, longtime collaborators in the graphic fiction medium, move to film without too much damage. There are moments which don't seem to quite follow from what we've seen, and perhaps a slight over-reliance on formula. Technically, their reach sometimes seems to exceed their grasp: They produced the film under the aegis of Jim Henson Productions, and while the animatronics and puppetry are superlative, the digital work isn't quite on the same level. The color scheme used is kind of dreary, too.

And despite those failings, this is a film that contains moments of transcendant beauty. Even if the whole thing doesn't quite gel, there's no doubt during those moments that you're getting your money's worth.

Anna Kareninina

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 10 October 2005 at the Brattle Theater (Greta Garbo: A Centennial Tribute)

I hate these people. Even the kid, who is such a whiny lisping mama's boy that I found myself thinking that they had better not try and kill him in order to elicit sympathy, because I would cheer, and then I'd look like the same kind of unpleasant jackass that I despise this film's cast of characters for being. Let's tally them up: A rakish soldier who ignores a perfectly pretty girl who is into him to chase after a married woman; said married woman, who allows herself to be caught by him; and her martinet of a husband, who will only grant Anna a divorce if she gives up her beloved son (which the trollop does), and who then tells the boy that his mother is dead. Then, Anna and her boyfriend leave Russia to live in Venice, where they complain about not being in frigid St. Petersburg while he yearns to get involved in a Balkan war.

Seriously, what is wrong with them? Why should we care what happens to any of them? Now, while I understand that this story was written in a different era and "get a divorce with a reasonable custody arrangement" was not an option on the cultural radar at the time, this still isn't a romantic tragedy; this is a bunch of people who made their bed and are unhappy that they have to lie in it. By the end of the film, my sole rooting interest was in hoping that they somehow wound up in Tunguska, Siberia, in 1908 and could thus be obliterated by an exploding meteorite. (Spoilers: This doesn't happen)


* * * * (out of four)
Seen 12 October 2005 at the Brattle Theater (Greta Garbo: A Centennial Tribute)

Leslie Nielsen started his career not as a comedian, but as a Great Stone Face guy, clipped and authoritative. This is a large part of why his early expeditions into comedy were so funny - he was being Leslie Nielsen, but that persona was a complete (and occasionally absurd) contrast to the anarchy around him.

What does this have to do with Ninotchka? Despite being one of Garbo's last films, it was her first major comedy, and it derives much of its humor from the fact that she seems completely out of place amid crazy antics. It's a shame, one thinks, that she didn't try this earlier, she's got fantastic deadpan skills and does more than just send up her stern reputation; Ninotchka's softening over the course of the film is smooth, a fine performance even if you've never heard of Garbo as either an actress or personality.

And there's great talent all around her. If you wanted a clever, crisply acted comedy, director Ernest Lubitsch was the go-to guy, and he delivers here in spades. Four people are credited with writing, the most notable being screwball master Billy Wilder; they jab at the Soviet Union with a light wit that might not have worked during the Cold War. Melvyn Douglas is fine as the opposite attracted to Ninotchka, with Sig Rumann, Felix Bressart, and Alexander Granach always good for a laugh as the three less-than-devoted Communists she is sent to reign in. Bela Lugosi is nicely menacing, even though his part isn't nearly as large as his billing. It's one of those movies where everybody winds up firing on all cylinders, truly earning its "classic" label.

Grand Hotel

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 12 October 2005 at the Brattle Theater (Greta Garbo: A Centennial Tribute)

A couple years ago, I was puzzled when I heard movies (specifically, those of Douglas Sirk) described as "soap opera". How could this be, I thought; isn't one of soap's defining characteristics its serial nature? After seeing Grand Hotel, I see that's not the case; even something as bounded as a two-hour film can be soap opera if it packs the requisite amount of melodrama into relatively minor stories of domestic desperation.

Which is what Grand Hotel does, even if it's not terribly domestic; the characters are relatively transient, living in a Berlin hotel and acting out their little dramas. They are nice little stories, and the cast is top-notch: Greta Garbo and Joan Crawford, John and Lionel Barrymore, Lewis Stone and Wallace Beery. It's well-directed by Edmund Goulding, and fairly well-played, too, although the acting style of the day is a little more theatrical than I'm used to for this type of film.

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