Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Vacation (and since) catch-up

New Year's Resolution: To at least put these placeholders in where I can, especially during the upcoming Brattle Movie-Watch-a-Thon, so that people can tell exactly how much they hall be generously giving to the Brattle Theater. Drop me a line if you would like to sponsor me, go hereto make a donation, and check back on a near-daily basis to see how well I'm doing.

Fair warning: I won the prize for "most movies seen" last time, a shiny iPod Shuffle that looks positively gargantuan next to this year's model and which I somehow lost between my old apartment and the bus stop. That's unlikely to happen again, since the distance between my house and the bus stop is much shorter than it was.

Children of Men

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 27 December 2006 at AMC Boston Common #2 (First-run)

When P.D. James's book first came out, I didn't read it, even though I was in the middle of my teenage phase of devouring every book by a writer that was featured on PBS's Mystery! and greatly enjoyed the adaptations of her Adam Dalgliesh mysteries starring Roy Marsden. I was dissuaded by a review that said it might seem like something new and different to James's mystery fans, but was nothing science fiction fans hadn't seen a million times before.

Seeing the movie, that still bugs a little - the genre snob in me thinks that, absent a convincing explanation, the story is relegated to anything-goes fantasy. I'm still not generally interested in dark, everything-has-gone-to-hell futures, but that's in part because they're seldom as convincing and well-thought-out as the one in Children of Men, with equal parts people going through the motions of daily life to try and maintain normality as long as possible in case things get better, striking out violently because there's little future to lose (and that somehow makes life cheap rather than precious), and giving in to despair. Too often, filmmakers will emphasize only one of these things, or push into parody, but this one really feels like some thought has been given to what the end of the world is like.

It would have been nice to have more Julianne Moore and Michael Caine and maybe a little less Clive Owen. Owen arguably does a good job relating the depressed tenor of the world around him, but given that his character is chosen to be the central figure, I would have liked to see evidence that he was a little more substantial.

The Good German

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 31 December 2006 at AMC Harvard Square #4 (First-run)

You can see Steven Soderbergh having fun with this movie. I strongly suspect that when it comes out on home video, the commentary will reveal that every shot is an homage to something else, from the retro-style opening credits to shots that painstakingly create the composition of 1940s newsreel footage. The movie poster is a pastiche of Casablanca and the film uses more than a bit of its plot, although it probably cribs even more from The Third Man.

And that's fun, in a way, and I'm willing to forgive that The Good German doesn't quite live up to its obvious inspirations. It feels just a little bit cobbled together - a narrative film from the 1940s doesn't look quite like a newsreel from the same era, and the jump between styles can be a bit jarring. The relay-race structure of the film is handled pretty well, and might work a bit better for someone who went in without the notion of George Clooney being the star: The middle segment is his, but Tobey Maguire and Cate Blanchett each have a turn at pushing the other two to supporting-character status.

Clooney and Soderbergh remain one of Hollywood's most enjoyable pairings, and they (along with Maguire and Blanchett) frequently manage to raise the film past the level of being a technical exercise. Too often, though, the film is just a little too chilly.

The Rules of the Game (La R├Ęgle de Jeu)

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 31 December 2006 at the Brattle Theater (Special Engagements)

Rules of the Game is a very French comedy of manners, centered around the idea that different groups have different ideas of what proper manners are. That a marquis has a mistress is less scandalous, it would appear, than his wife having a platonic male friend. Different rules seem to be in place among the servants, although the closer they are to the guests at the marquis's party, the more they try to play by those rules.

Jean Renoir juggles a large cast of characters, aristocracy and servants, men and women, all romantics in their own way. He starts the movie out witty and genteel, then keeps pushing things a little farther, and then just a little more, until the final act when things have spun raucously out of control. A movie that starts with understated wit expands into broad physical comedy by the end. But even as it gets more silly, it casts a more jaundiced eye on how frivolous things are. There's pathos in Gaston Modot's gamekeeper, even if he seems the most buffoonish character.

Forbidden Planet

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 5 January 2007 in Jay's New And Improved Living Room (HD-DVD)

Somehow, I've missed this up until now, although I gather it will likely show up at the Sci-Fi marathon this year. I bought it in part because I was infatuated with my new HD-DVD player and thus was buying almost anything that looked interesting, much like I did when DVD was new ten years ago. The HD-DVD was a pretty good investment.

The movie is famously taken in part from The Tempest - an exiled nobleman, his daughter who has never had contact with the outside world, an assistant of incredible power - but it works in a good dose of classic sci-fi. In fact, it's one of the best-looking sci-fi films ever made, especially taking its time period into consideration. It's a clear influence on Star Trek, and some of the environments are as impressive as the ones George Lucas would come up with for Star Wars.

Leslie Nielsen as the young, square-drawed captain is great fun for those of us who really only know him from his spoofing of such roles. Anne Francis is cheerfully oblivious in a series of ever-shorter dresses, and Walter Pidgeon imperious as Doctor Morbius. They're the exact same characters you expect to see in a bad fifties sci-fi movie, but everything around them is higher quality than you'd otherwise expect.

The Good Shepherd

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 6 January 2007 at Regal Fenway #12 (First-run)

The couple dozen times I looked at my watch during The Good Shepherd sound pretty bad, but it's a long movie. So it's not as bad as if I'd been that bored during a seventy-eight minute movie.

There's two separate stories going on, or so it seems: The early history of the CIA as seen through the eyes of Matt Damon's Edward Bell Wilson and his own family travails. The trouble is, Wilson isn't very interesting - he does what he's told, only occasionally allowing some small trace of individuality to emerge from his bespectacled face. It's genuine, but two and a half hours is a lot of self-denial. It's a single note played over and over again.

The two threads do eventually come together at the end, along with the two time periods - the film has jumped back and forth between investigating the Bay of Pigs leak in 1961 and tracking Wilson's life to that point. The connection just isn't quite interesting enough, though; despite the time spent, Wilson's family just never becomes important enough to us for the moments that make the whole film come together to seem worth the time.

The Quiet American '58

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 6 January 2007 at the Brattle Theater (Staff Picks 2007)

I saw the second adaptation of Graham Greene's novel first, and I tend to think that it's the superior version: Brendan Fraser acts circles around Audie Murphy, and Michael Caine made his character pathetic in a way that Michael Redgrave just wasn't able to do. The recent version has the benefit of hindsight, as well; when this movie was released in 1958, the title character's vision of a democratic, self-governed Vietnam still seemed like a possibility.

Still, films are the product of their times and The Quiet American represents the 1950s well. There's optimistic Americans running headlong into a world that doesn't necessarily share its ideals, and being torn down by its corrupting influence. There are arrangements that look good on the surface and mask bitter dissatisfaction. Elaborate plans that hinge on deception still fool the characters and the audience even though they're laid out with a theatricality that has fallen out of favor in later films.

It's also interesting to see Vietnam as setting; the film was shot there before Kennedy started sending "advisers" over, and even if the area sometimes looks a little to clean for the period it covers (1952), there's still an authenticity that studio-based films don't quite match.

Full review at HBS.

Our Man in Havana

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 6 January 2007 at the Brattle Theater (Staff Picks 2007)

When I think of Carol Reed and Graham Greene, "funny" isn't the first adjective that comes to mind, which makes Our Man in Havana an even more pleasant surprise - it's a light-hearted Cold War romp that remains funny even as elements of genuine danger and maybe even a hint of romance creep into it. That's not a total surprise; Alec Guiness had a real knack for giving dark comedy a light touch, and he excels at it here.

It works because things start out harmless enough before escalating to absurdity. The idea that a vacuum cleaner salesman can make up an entire spy network out of nothing is the best sort of satire - amusing and seeming to arise naturally from the situation, but honestly frightening when you really stop to think about the implications. Also, Reed and company opt not to dwell on the violence that enters the picture later - it's shocking, but not explicit enough to make you regret laughing earlier or render you incapable of laughing again later.

Cat People

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 7 January 2007 at the Brattle Theater (Staff Picks 2007)

So... let me get this straight: I understand that premarital sex wasn't exactly the given in 1942 that it is often considered to be today. Still, I would think that at some point "I can't have sex because I honestly think I'll turn into a panther and rip you to shreds, even after we get married" would be mentioned. It's just good manners.

Credit to the film for milking a lot of atmosphere out of lighting and set design to counter a special effects budget of basically zero; it's a spiffy-looking movie with excellent use of shadows. There's not much to it, but it at least looks good.

The Most Dangerous Game

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 7 January 2007 at the Brattle Theater (Staff Picks 2007)

An all-time classic story made into a great movie without an ounce of fat on it. It's also a kick to see how it recycles jungle sets from King Kong; that tree over a gorge looks awful familiar. Robert Armstrong and Fay Wray are also both on-hand.

There should be more hour-long movies, maybe as part of a double feature like Grindhouse or the "iDol"/"Sukeban Boy"/"Negadon" package I saw at the last day of Fantasia last year. Making this movie longer isn't going to improve it much at all, but nobody even thinks of shooting something less than ninety minutes today.

No comments: