Craig J. Clark Watches a Lot of Movies
I believe in truth in advertising. I also believe in keeping things short. I watch a lot of movies. This is where I'm going to write about them. Let's roll.
Saturday, May 18, 2013
Thank you for your visit. Come again!
Exactly ten years ago, French animator Syvain Chomet wowed audiences at Cannes with his debut feature, The Triplets of Belleville, which was an idiosyncratic breath of fresh air in a marketplace that seemed to have all but abandoned hand-drawn animation. A film that doesn't shy away from the grotesque -- rather, it places it front and center -- Triplets revels in all types of bizarrely deformed bodies, putting them through the paces of an outlandish, almost entirely wordless adventure. (Apart from a handful of lines in English, the majority of the dialogue we hear in passing is unsubtitled French, but this is no impediment whatsoever to understanding what's going on.)
The film's story revolves around a woman who does everything she can to encourage her grandson's monomaniacal interest in cycling and, accompanied by their morbidly overweight dog, goes to great lengths to find him when he's abducted by the French mafia while competing in his first Tour de France. Along the way she hooks up with the title characters, a trio of female singers whose heyday has long since passed, but they're defiantly resilient, subsisting on a diet of frog prepared every which way. (If you think the frog soup and frog kabobs are disgusting, just wait until they whip out the frogsicles.) The once-famous Triplets may live in squalor, but it's squalor on their own terms and that's what counts.
Without the crutch of dialogue, Chomet relies heavily on sight gags to advance the plot -- or simply to be standalone gags, like the way the dog barks its head off at every single train that passes (and even knows the timetable for the one at their home). He also includes a number of scenes where the animation is positively breathtaking, like the nighttime storm that overtakes the woman while she doggedly pursues a steamship in a rented paddle boat. And I appreciate the subtle nods to the past, like the advertisement for M. Hulot's Holiday hanging on the wall of the Triplets' hovel, which prefigures Chomet's follow-up feature, the Jacques Tati homage The Illusionist. Wherever he chooses to go from here, I know I'll be watching with interest.
It always takes a little time to make new friends.
One of the side benefits of the IU Cinema bringing Room 237 to Bloomington was their decision to program Stanley Kubrick's The Shining as well. As you might expect, this was a great boon to me since I've long wanted to see this film on the big screen as Kubrick intended. (Now to cross my fingers and hope a screening of Barry Lyndon is in the offing.)
The Shining is such a well-known story, I trust I don't need to go into the particulars. What matters is how Kubrick chose to tell it. Of course, there are some, including author Stephen King, who take issue with the way Kubrick takes the raw material provided by the novel and shapes it to his own ends, but all one has to do is look at the bloated two-part television film that King spearheaded to know that a "faithful" adaptation of The Shining is in no way an improvement over Kubrick's abridgement. (So he cut the scene with the wasps and the moving topiary menagerie. So what?)
Some have also criticized the casting of Jack Nicholson in the lead, believing that he's already unhinged at the start of the film and therefore doesn't have far enough to go to plunge into insanity. If you ask me, you'd have to have a least a few screws loose to accept a job that has the potential to cut you off from the rest of civilization for up to five months. And to bring your wife and a small child with you? Sheesh, management might as well have issued Nicholson with an axe the moment he signed his contract.
Likewise, Shelley Duvall is often pilloried for the way she dissolves into a blubbering, hysterical mess by the end of the film, and Scatman Crothers suffers the indignity of being Nicholson's only real victim (other than a couple of doors -- for such a seminal horror film, this has a remarkably low body count). And then there's child actor Danny Lloyd, who seems a lot more animated when he's inhabited by "Tony" than he is as himself, but these are not flaws in my book. Rather, they all serve to make The Shining one of the most subtly unsettling motion pictures you're ever likely to see. Heck, the fact that I wasn't too distracted by all the folderol that got thrown around last night is proof positive that Kubrick's work more than stands on its own merits.
Look, this don't have to get no uglier than it already is.
One of the most unpleasant experiences I've ever had at the movies was seeing The Texas Chainsaw Massacre in 2003. Words cannot describe how much it revolted me from top to bottom. I was so put off by it, in fact, that it soured me on horror remakes in general (with the sole exception of Rob Zombie's Halloween, which wasn't nearly as bad, but still strengthened my resolve). And that went double for bullshit like 2006's The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning, which was of all things a prequel to the remake. The way I saw it, if Tobe Hooper never felt the need to explore the backstory of Leatherface and the rest of the Sawyer clan, then nobody else needed to, either. So why then would I consent to pass an evening with Texas Chainsaw, which not only drops the Massacre from the title, but even purports to be a direct sequel to Hooper's 1974 original? I guess you could say my curiosity got the better of me, and I was rewarded with a follow-up that's better than it has any right to be -- even if the end result is still pretty mediocre.
For the benefit of anybody who needs a refresher (which, to be honest, shouldn't be anybody in its target audience), the film opens with a three-minute encapsulation of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, then jumps straight into the immediate aftermath of Sally Hardesty's escape as the previously unseen Sheriff Hooper (Thom Barry) arrives at the Sawyer residence, which is filled to the brim with people who weren't in the original film (so much for continuity, people). This results in a standoff that nearly ends with the Sawyers (whose ranks include Bill Moseley, taking over the role that Jim Siedow originated, and Gunnar Hansen, the original Leatherface, who isn't playing Leatherface) ready to turn over Jed (which is not what I was expecting Leatherface's real name to be), but then a posse shows up and things quickly escalate into a shootout that ends with the house going up in flames and everybody inside getting burned to a crisp. Well, not everybody. The littlest Sawyer is spared and is secretly taken in by one of the vigilantes and grows up to be Alexandra Daddario, who looks pretty good for somebody who's pushing 40. (At least, that's what her age should be.)
Soon after we're introduced to her, Daddario (who naturally works in a supermarket's meat department) finds out she was adopted when she receives word that her biological grandmother has died. Taking full advantage of the narrative economy that comes of having four writers contribute to its story and screenplay, the film sends Daddario on the road with her boyfriend (Trey Songz), her slutty best friend (Tania Raymonde), and her slutty best friend's boyfriend (Keram Malicki-Sánchez), and then adds a hitchhiker (Shaun Sipos) for good measure. At the end of the road (on which they pass a dead armadillo, one of a number of obvious nods to the original), Daddario discovers she has inherited a house that she's not allowed to sell and is given a letter from her grandmother that she forgets to read because if she did then there would be no movie.
Perhaps sensing that his audience might be getting restless, director John Luessenhop sends the most expendable member of the ensemble down into the basement to release Leatherface (Dan Yeager), who's so grateful he bashes the poor sap's head in. Thus begins the inevitable attrition (the next kid to buy it gets hooked in the back, then hung on a hook, and finally chainsawed it half) and the inevitable failed escape attempt, but Daddario manages to cut through the woods to the town carnival where cute cop Scott Eastwood comes to her rescue. The action then shifts to the police station, where she is conveniently left alone with a box full of evidence that fills her (and us) in on exactly who she is and how she's related to the burly dude in the human skin mask who keeps trying to murder her with a chainsaw. Every family's got one of those, right?
Things continue to develop from there -- and in some fairly unexpected directions -- but what surprised me the most is the way the film manages to turn Leatherface into something of a hero. Then again, the bigger surprise may be that Marilyn Burns (who played Sally in the original film) agreed to come back and play the role of Daddario's grandmother. Considering how much the original's production scarred her, it must have been a relief that her part in this one is confined to sitting at a desk and writing a letter. I'm sure that was a lot less nerve-wracking (and that the pay was a lot better this time around).
Friday, May 17, 2013
You have to be a complete fanatic like I am to find all this.
When I was in college I read a book that analyzed all of Stanley Kubrick's films in detail, placing great emphasis on recurring themes and homing in on his use of symbols. Accordingly, when the author got to the chapter on The Shining, he spent most of it discussing the Native American imagery that is present throughout the film and ultimately came to the conclusion that Kubrick was telling a parallel story about their genocide at the blood-soaked hands of European settlers. As it turns out, that's just one of the strange theories floated in Rodney Ascher's documentary Room 237, which premiered at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival and subsequently screened at Cannes (where this year's festival is currently in full swing).
As one might expect, most of the heavy lifting is done by Kubrick's version of The Shining, but Ascher also employs clips from his other films (as well as a goodly number that he had no hand in) to illustrate the words of his revolving cast of narrators, some of whom wind up sounding a lot more reasonable than others. In addition to Indian genocide, The Shining is successively said to be about the Holocaust, subliminal sexual images (strange, then, that the guy in the bear costume giving another guy head gets glossed over), the history of civilization, Danny Torrance's exploration of his parents' fantasy head spaces, and Kubrick's confession that he helped NASA fake the Apollo moon landing. All amusing notions, but it's hard to believe that anybody believes that Kubrick intended for these meanings to be teased out of his film. Why, one of the narrators is even convinced that a figure on a ski poster on the wall in the background of a single shot is actually a minotaur, to go with the outdoor labyrinth. (Of course, she's the first to concede that "You're not supposed to see the minotaur.")
For fans of Kubrick's take on The Shining, the most useful passages of Room 237 may very well be the ones dealing with the Overlook Hotel's impossible architecture, which is the sort of thing that can be hard to pick up on if you're not looking for it, and the various continuity errors that managed to creep into the film, some of which are actually quite glaring. As parlor games go, though, it's hard to top some of the startling images that randomly crop up when the film is played backward and forward at the same time. If you ask me, that's a lot more revealing than pointing out where a man appears to have giant erection or Jack Nicholson has a fleeting Hitler mustache. Helpfully, Ascher lets Scatman Crothers sum the whole thing by including the moment where he tells the young Danny, "There ain't nothing in Room 237." At the very least, there's nothing that anybody needs to take seriously.
Thursday, May 16, 2013
A lot goes unspoken in this family, so now I feel relieved.
Olivier Assayas's 2008 drama Summer Hours is bookended by two large gatherings at a sprawling country estate that a famous French artist once called home. The first is purely a family affair on the occasion of the 75th birthday of the great man's niece (Edith Scob), who is concerned about what will become of the house and its contents after she is gone. The second is a raucous house party thrown by two of her grandchildren (Alice de Lencquesaing and Emile Berling) for a few dozen of their friends before it's turned over to its new owners. Assayas spends more time on the first party -- which is a good thing because after it's over that's all for Scob -- but it's during the second that the impact of what she set in motion months earlier fully lands.
Of Scob's three children -- economist Charles Berling, artist Juliette Binoche, engineer Jérémie Renier -- she handpicks Berling to manage her estate since he's the only one who still lives in France. (Binoche is based in New York and has no plans to move back; Renier has been placed in charge of his company's factories in China and is contemplating a more permanent arrangement for his growing family.) Berling is all for preserving things as they are, including the house, but Scob insists that everything be sold (or, in the case of her uncle's art collection and art deco furnishings, donated to the right museum), and Binoche and Renier outvote him when the time comes. Tellingly, it's only after the deal is sealed (and faithful housekeeper Isabelle Sadoyan has been packed off to live with her relatives) that we find out what it all means to the next generation. Maybe they should have been given a vote, too.
Wednesday, May 15, 2013
They say the pyrotechnical display is going to be brilliant.
Tennessee Williams had a definite flair for the psychosexual -- and for the well-timed deployment of a florid turn of phrase or four. Both of these traits are very much in evidence in 1961's Summer and Smoke, based on his 1948 play about a wastrel of a bacteriologist and a repressed preacher's daughter who live next door to each other in a small Southern town and are about the most incompatible would-be lovers you could ever imagine. As brought to the screen by director Peter Glenville, working from a script by James Poe (who previously helped adapt Williams's Cat on a Hot Tin Roof) and Meade Roberts (who collaborated with the playwright on 1959's The Fugitive Kind), the story opens on a spooky All Hallows' Eve when doctor's son Johnny gives prissy Alma what is clearly her first kiss. Fast-forward a decade or so and little Johnny has grown up to be med student Laurence Harvey, returned home for the summer and seemingly determined to corrupt the prim and proper Geraldine Page, who earned her first Academy Award nomination for Best Actress for her role as the delicate Alma.
As it turns out, the impediments to their successful coupling are legion. On Page's end, she has to contend with a batty mother (Best Supporting Actress nominee Una Merkel) whose mental instability has forced them to effectively switch roles and a father (Malcolm Atterbury) who depends on her too much to let her go off and start her own life. As for Harvey, he's caught between the disapproval of his stern father (John McIntire) and the flirtations of tempestuous bad girl Rita Moreno, whose father (Thomas Gomez) owns the local seedy casino, which has as one of its attractions a cockfighting ring. As if this isn't suggestive enough, the one time Harvey takes Page out he gets them a ringside seat for a particularly bloody contest, which makes me think he must get his dating tips from Travis Bickle.
Considering how they start out, with Page preoccupied by matters spiritual (more than once she mentions that Alma is Spanish for soul) and Harvey playing the heedless hedonist, it's a little too neatly schematic the way life turns the tables on them by the end of the film. For Harvey, it comes of having to step up to the plate when his father is violently taken out of the picture. For Page, it's the product of her failure to find a proper release valve for her mounting hysteria, which is why we last see her getting picked up by a traveling salesman (Earl Holliman) while Harvey winds up betrothed to a nice girl (Pamela Tiffin) who went away to finishing school to get over her sheltered upbringing. That's Page's problem in a nutshell: she's unfinished, and that's how she'll always be.
Tuesday, May 14, 2013
Before starting, I hope to make a fine movie. The problems begin and I aim lower.
When I was a budding cinephile, the François Truffaut film I was most familiar with was 1973's Day for Night, which premiered at Cannes 40 years ago today. I came to know the film well because it showed up with some regularity on PRISM, the Philly-based premium cable channel my family subscribed to because my father was a big Flyers fan. A clear precursor to such movie-movies as The Stunt Man and Living in Oblivion, Day for Night depicts the barely controlled chaos of an international co-production and all the crises its crew has to deal with on a day to day basis. So as not to distract from the behind-the-scenes shenanigans, Meet Pamela -- the film being shot -- is a rather banal melodrama about an older man carrying on an affair with his daughter-in-law. Sensing that this is the case, the director (Truffaut) is rewriting the script on the fly, which makes things harder on his actors than they need to be.
In point of fact, it's something of a miracle that Truffaut manages to get anything in the can at all. His leading lady (Jacqueline Bisset) is in a very fragile state having recently recovered from a breakdown. Her screen husband (Jean-Pierre Léaud) has gotten his girlfriend (Dani) a job on the film as a trainee script girl, but her interests lay elsewhere, which drives him to distraction. The actors playing his parents (Jean-Pierre Aumont and Valentina Cortese) once had a torrid love affair that ended badly, and Cortese's boozing makes it difficult for her to remember her lines. And the actress playing Aumont's secretary (Alexandra Stewart) turns out to be pregnant, which is a problem because Truffaut doesn't want audiences to think Aumont knocked her up. He figures out how to shoot around it, though, which is pretty much the entire film in microcosm. No matter what obstacles get thrown in his way, he knows the only thing he can do is muddle through and hope he doesn't get thrown too far off course. Considering Day for Night took home the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film, I'd say many of his peers in Hollywood found it easy to relate.
Monday, May 13, 2013
A girl's honor isn't just talk. It really exists.
What a difference a year can make. The Milos Forman that co-wrote and directed 1965's Loves of a Blonde was much more confident and assured behind the camera than the one that turned out the tentative, ungainly Black Peter the year before. Perhaps the switch from a male to a female protagonist is what made the difference since Hanu Brejchovou, who plays the fair-haired title character, is an extremely compelling subject. A factory worker in a rural town where the unattached women outnumber the men 16 to one, she and her youthful comrades are initially excited about the arrival of an army regiment, but when they turn out to be anything but spring chickens the girls' ardor cools.
This carries over to the dance welcoming the soldiers, which results in a lot of mixed signals from both directions. Then again, Brejchovou is much more interested in pianist Vladimíra Pucholta, who succeeds in getting her to come up to his room after the festivities are all over. At first she has no intention of staying or even removing her coat, but eventually he gets past her defenses and, before she knows it, she's taken everything off and is ready to give herself to him. (His supposed sexual prowess is undercut a little, though, by his difficulty with a window shade that just won't stay drawn.) Believing they've forged a connection, she hitches a ride to Prague to see him and, since he's out when she arrives, gets acquainted with his parents (Milada Jezková and Josef Sebánek), who are less than enthused to have a strange girl with a suitcase show up at their door. Suffice it to say, when Pucholta gets home from his gig he has a lot of explaining to do.
Sunday, May 12, 2013
I'm bursting with energy. I have to channel it into something.
Of all the films I could have watched for Mother's Day, Marco Bellocchio's Fists in the Pocket is an odd choice since its plot turns on an attempted matricide. (And I don't have the excuse of not knowing about it since Netflix -- my source for the film -- helpfully mentions it in the summary.) Made in 1965 when such a thing would have definitely been shocking, Fists was writer/director Bellocchio's feature debut and let me tell you, it is quite the doozy. Lou Castel heads the cast as a young man with few prospects and poor impulse control who feels that he and the rest of his family are a burden on his older brother (Marino Masé), who is the only one among them that isn't an invalid of some sort. (Castel and his siblings, Paola Pitagora and Pierluigi Troglio, are all epileptics, and their mother, Liliana Gerace, is blind.) Castel's first instinct is to commandeer the family car and drive them all over a cliff, leaving Masé to start a new life with his girlfriend (Jenny MacNeil), but when he fails to go through with it he has to settle for Plan B.
A pitch-black comedy that takes some unexpected twists and turns on the road to its foregone conclusion, Fists is a real showcase for Castel, who displayed for the first time the combination of vulnerability and volatility that he has continued to tap into over his five-decade career. Whether he's keeping up his end of the bitter rivalry with sister Pitagora (the only one who knows the true depth of his depravity) or making up horrible news stories when his mother asks him to read the paper to her, his flair for the inappropriately dramatic never lets him down. No wonder one of Troglio's few lines, after yet another family row, is, "What torture, living in this house."
I am going to commit a most worthy suicide.
Hot on the heels of 13 Assassins, Takashi Miike directed his second remake of a '60s samurai film in as many years with 2011's Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai, based on the same story as Masaki Kobayashi's 1962 classic. He even went so far as to shoot it in 3-D, but I was more than happy to view the "flat" version. Some stories simply do not need gimmickry in order to sell themselves, and this is most definitely one of them.
Set in the early 17th century during a time of peace, when masterless samurai could have a hard time getting by, the story is about one such ronin (Ebizô Ichikawa, who is dignity personified) who asks for permission to commit suicide in the courtyard of a highly respected clan. His request troubles chief retainer Kôji Yakusho since it reminds him of another, younger samurai (Eita) who asked the same thing two months earlier and was made to go through with it (at the insistence of his sadistic second, Munetaka Aoki) in order to discourage future "suicide bluffs." Ichikawa makes plain that he's not bluffing and insists on having the same second, witness and attendant as Eita, but when all three turn out to be absent, he goes on to tell Yakusho exactly why he wound up on their doorstep.
From there, the film (which was scripted by Kikumi Yamagishi, who wrote Miike's gonzo zombie musical comedy Happiness of the Katakuris one decade earlier) goes into an extended flashback that lays out Ichikawa's connection to Eita and how, alongside his frail daughter (Hikari Mitsushima), they faced sickness, hunger and dire poverty after the collapse of their clan. Aided by Ryuichi Sakamoto's poignant score, this is Miike at his most measured, and his restraint pays off in a climax that packs a powerful emotional punch. Even if it doesn't quite measure up to Kobayashi's original (which is perfect in just about every way), this Hara-Kiri certainly has nothing to be ashamed of.
Recently Seen in Theaters:
Room 237 (Rodney Ascher, 2012)
No (Pablo Larraín, 2012)
Mud (Jeff Nichols, 2012)
Night Across the Street (Raúl Ruiz, 2012)
To the Wonder (Terrence Malick, 2012)
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