Monday, September 13, 2004

Short Cuts: September '04

Billy Madison
d. Tamra Davis, 1995

Can anyone think of a movie more asinine than Billy Madison? Lord knows, I cannot. From the ludicrous love story to the penguin (!) it makes absolutely no sense. But therein lay its wonder and merriment: not once does it try to make sense. If it allowed a single moment of believability or logic, the whole film would falter. Instead, we are given moment after moment, line after line, of surreal idiocy. And when the musical number kicks in, gosh, it gets me every time.

Days of Heaven
d. Terrence Malick, 1978

Looking at the visuals in Days of Heaven, I am most reminded of the Baja Californian vistas painted (with words) by Cormac McCarthy in his Border Trilogy and, even moreso, Blood Meridian. Malick's film does not possess the unmitigated violence that McCarthy favors, but is equally enamored with the pensive studies of agrarian landscapes that McCarthy finds so compelling. Malick's camera (via Nestor Almendros and Haskell Wexler) portrays people lost in sun, swallowed by their surroundings, and alone in the distance. Not since King Vidor's The Crowd has isolation looked so yummy. The story is narrated by Linda Manz, playing a naive child who somehow is omniscient. Even though her lack of understanding is apparent, one cannot help but agree when she says we are all half devil and half angel. From the mouth of babes...

Five Easy Pieces
d. Bob Rafelson, 1970

I fully intended to write a large-scale review of this film, but failed due my inability to remember the plot and characters as well as I would like. Naturally, a full review should be up in a couple months, or as soon as I see it again. What I do remember is this: a really great film about a man (and all men, really) trying to find out where they fit in life. And then, after finding where they fit, not liking it and trying to escape the environ. Jack Nicholson plays the protagonist, (for the life of me, I cannot remember his name and am too proud to check out imdb) a figurative ping-pong ball, vacillating between the upper class dreck and lower class ignorant. Needless to say, he isn’t terribly happy. As I said, full review pending.

Flesh for Frankenstein
d. Paul Morrissey, 1973

A satire’s worst enemy is often itself. There are two major pits to fall into:
1. Over-parody.
2. Taking itself too seriously.
It is the second pit that Flesh for Frankenstein falls into. Paul Morrissey, writer and director, attempts too much. Baron Frankenstein has a thick German accent (natural, it should be noted) and he talks of constructing the perfect man. Hmm…sound like someone you have heard of (coughHitlercough)? Almost every character displays signs of impulsive and destructive sexual tendencies. The overwhelming amount of gore can only be effacingly copying the horror genre. And, finally, the characters speak in horror clichés. (Although, one great line should be noted, “To know death, Otto, you have to fuck life in the gallbladder.”) So Morrissey is saying that sex is destroying our society, the horror genre is silly, and, well, I know the Nazis fit into it somehow. Right. I cannot quibble with his message, but the messenger is too convoluted, and too full of itself, to convey Morrissey’s points effectively.

d. Tod Browning, 1932

Caused quite a stir in 1932 by using actual circus freaks for the title's namesake. Mostly an exercise in film history, Freaks still has some shock power. It is unclear whether Browning was making a compassion piece or an exploitation flick. The Freaks are, well, called freaks to begin with and they end up turning into murderous monsters. At the same time, the whole premise ("normal" folks swindling dwarfed "freak" out of his inheritance) alludes to the mistreatment of the "freaks" in society. For my money, all of the characters are freaks; not because of their outward appearances, but because of their inward ugliness. Most every character, barring an angelic few, are selfish, conniving, and cruel. Whatever the case, the Wedding Feast scene, in which the dwarf realizes what is going on, is one of the more powerful attempts at showing the human grotesque I have seen.

The Great Dictator
d. Charles Chaplin, 1940

Once I got over the novelty of hearing Chaplin's voice ("Dude, he sounds like Austin Powers!"), I found this film to be a mix of mediocrity and greatness. Essentially, it's a parody of the Nazi regime before people realized the extent of the horror Hitler inflicted. Chaplin plays two characters - the Hitler prototype, Hynkel, and a Jewish barber living in the ghetto. As roughly as the ghetto dwellers are treated, it is a far cry from the monstrosity that we now know it to have been. Remember though, this is a Chaplin movie, ergo a comedy. There are some great gags (Hynkel's speech, his dance with the world, the ghetto blindfight shenanigans), but it mostly seems that Chaplin is a fish out of water. In scenes that seem right out of one of his silent films, Chaplin, instead of adding music or something to fill the scene out a bit, keeps it silent. He relies solely on sound effects rather than fleshing out the scene with effects, dialogue, and music. Succinctly: it doesn't seem like he completely understands the talkies yet. Even with all of its flaws it is still a superb example of political satire. Admirably, Chaplin reigns in the satire and ends the film with a brilliantly written speech that managed to move even this stoic critic. So: moments of greatness, but not as good as Chaplin can be.

Pickup on South Street
d. Samuel Fuller, 1953

The Reds. A con working both teams. High contrast black & white. Who doesn't love the American Cinema of the early 1950's? Lord knows, I do. But as much as I love it, I will be the first to admit that it can easily, too easily, fall into that deplorable pit known as Cheesy. Working on a B-budget, it seems remarkable that Samuel Fuller did not fall into that pit in 1953 while making Pickup on South Street. All the elements are there: the aforementioned Commies, the tough criminal turned lover, and the inept, but well-intentioned, police force. Instead of getting bogged down in the muck and mire, Fuller weaves the plot around themes of patriotism (true patriotism, that is), retribution, and redemption. Most alarming: who is the protagonist? Not the tough-guy pick-pocket, definitely not the ditzy squeeze, can't be the cops (never the cops. gosh no, not the cops.)Fuller gives us an ensemble, allowing us to choose who we root for, and, most of all, telling us that it is OK if we decide not to root for anyone. Unheard of in 1953, possibly heard even less in 2004.

The Third Man
d. Carol Reed, 1949

Orson Welles is in this pic for a rather generous total of 30 minutes. And he steals the show. I, for one, cannot keep my eyes off of the guy. He nearly threatens to steal the show even from Carol Reed. But he fails. Combining a fantastic setting – a crumbling Vienna post WWII – and the canted angles and larger-than-life shadows of German Expressionism, Reed creates a true work of art out of what seems to be merely a thriller/mystery libretto. A rather ironic zither score underlines the decay and chaos of pretty much everything. It seems to say that these characters completely understand the game they’re playing, and what fate they’ll meet, but everything around them is in such shambles that it hardly matters.

The Usual Suspects
d. Bryan Singer, 1995

Pardon me for being entirely underwhelmed by this one. Everyone I know (admittedly, only a few cinemaphiles) recommended The Usual Suspects with highest aplomb. I was guaranteed to like it, they assured. Fun and all that it was, but hardly the greatness I expected. As everyone knows by now, there is a twist. I had managed for 9 years to keep myself in the dark regarding said twist, only to figure it out in first 20 minutes or so. That said, it was not a waste of my time. It kept me entertained for 106 minutes, so it cannot be all that bad. One thing is getting me though: how on God's green earth did Kevin Spacey win best supporting actor for his hack job on this one?