Archive for September, 2011

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009)

“The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus” (2009)

IMDb

the faces of the nest

Nothing in cinema should be more praised than an imagination rooted fully on a visual world. Films whose purpose is to create images, where images are the the medium and the end to it. Emotion? Meaning? Metaphors? Yes to all that, but embedded in the images, all those things As images, and not supported by them. If you start thinking in those terms, than Terry Gillian will stand high in his attitude towards film. Practically every concept he throws at any of his films is eminently visual.

The problem is that layered on that, he seems to be most of the time unable to overcome technical or practical limitations, and so the execution almost every time fails to achieve the success the concept promised.

Here we have a very interesting and visual thing: the idea of one’s imagination nested inside another man’s subconscious mind. The crossing of a visual portal leading to your own mind. Bounding as a deep buried thing, happening on the other side of the curtain. Two worlds separated by a thin curtain, like the old abandoned facade separates London from the refuge of our characters (magnificient space, that old emptied quarter.

Adding to that, the tragic death of Heath Ledger and the subsequent solution found to the problem lifted even more my expectations. Now we were going to have 4 of the most interesting actors today playing the same character in the same film! That was truly exciting when you think of it. And although I admit that in terms of continuity the writers did a very good job in overcoming the lack of the footage Ledger didn’t shoot, The way they placed the 3 volunteers was really far from what i was hoping to see.

Depp just makes fun of his “casually sexy” persona, something he’s been doing a lot lately. Jude Law is innocuous and only Colin Farrell does something mildly interesting, but only considering his own performance, not Ledger’s and the possible connections between the faces of the character.

If you consider that the visual worlds inside Parnasus’s mind are simply not interesting, mere digital deviations over banal virtual sets, that you get with a bad taste in the mouth. As in some other Gillian films, you know you could be watching a powerful film, but something just suffers from severe shortcomings. And in this case it’s not just the execution, although that helps.

We’re left with Lily Cole, a very intriguing actress, truly remarkable in her own personal awkwardness.

My opinion: 2/5

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Out of Sight (1998)

“Out of Sight” (1998)

IMDb

coloured heist

I came to this one shortly after i saw “the American”. There, Clooney impressed in the way he gave up on his regular character of the cool winking guy, whose actions on screen are all driven by a self sense of coolness and style. It’s a fun game to play with him, although not transcendental. In this film, that sense of comedy and funny style will forever be summed up in the scene when the door of an elevator opens and Clooney sees Lopez sitting in a sofa in the lobby of the hotel where she was chasing him, and he becomes numb and simply raises his hand to say hello. That’s the thing, that’s how his character works.

Soderbergh understood that feature of Clooney soon, and here we see him making a first draft to what would be the top of that coolness: the ocean’s franchise.

Here we have a simpler project, a curious one where Soderbergh amuses himself and allows himself some freedom to be personal while creating a money raising project for his more personal projects. It’s a normal heist movie, where the enjoyment lies in the complexity of the scheme, how it is planned, and how it unfolds, and all the twists and unpredictabilities within. This is pretty competent in those respects, although you’ll get no much out of it.

But there is one sequence truly enjoyable in how it announces some interesting later experiences Soderbergh in his “personal” field. The sequence when Clooney meets Lopez in a hotel. She is being approached by some drooling business men, than Clooney makes his move, they talk, they go to the room, they sleep together. Check the cinematography of that sequence and how it fits uneasily with the rest of the film. That bit suits the work of an author. The urban landscape outside the window of the hotel bar, the colors in the room, the lighting of the faces, even the interest in the dialog. Probably the best bit of acting we got Jennifer Lopez doing ever. I’ll keep that scene.

My opinion: 3/5, it won’t harm you, but check the biggest fish Soderbergh has to offer you.

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Spaceballs (1987)

“Spaceballs” (1987)

IMDb

rewind

I turned to this just a few time after i saw in a row the trilogy of double episodes of Family Guy spoofing Star Wars (“Laugh it up, fuzzball”). I wanted to compare the jokes made there with comedy made while Star Wars were still hot. Also, it’s quite likely that MacFarlane saw this film in his teens, even more when we know he’s a SW freak.

What we see here is quite dated today, in what concerns the pure value of the comedy. It’s not so much about the jokes, which actually fall in most cases in the same categories of the equivalent jokes in “Laugh it up…”. But the pace has changed since this was made. Audiences require much more frantic developments now, so they won’t turn away. I mean, even the Simpsons now sound slow when compared to Family Guy, South Park or Friends. But i supposed it was going to be like that. Among all the genres, comedy is the one which gets dated more often, and more quickly. Rythms change, demands change, and even the interests change. This film is still kept alive, i suppose, because Star Wars, boosted by the new recent episodes, is still kept alive. So it’s still possible for people born after this film was made to relate to its jokes.

But i wanted to see a feature film. I wanted to get out of the television world of series, who live on the sketches themselves, but always lack the grander scheme, the long form. And Mel Brooks doesn’t usually fail in the writing chapter. He is a true joker because his mind works cinematically, and it’s cinematically that he performs the twists. The fun is in the writing, the conception, as much as in the jokes themselves.

So, the jokes can work for you or not. The Han Solo dressed as Indiana Jones. The enhancement of features from star wars to cartoonish levels. Sexual inferences regarding light sabers or the physical samurai figure of Darth Vader (both of which Family guy also tackles). But the good things that really make this film for me are the self-referential bits. Films about films, films about filmmaking. There are several ordinary allusions to the fact that we are watching a film, but one really interesting moment. Darth Vader and crew, in order to find out where the fugitives are, assume that they are film characters in the film, so they look for the film itself, searching a shelf filled with Brook’s films, finding this film already edited on video, and running it on a TV, quickly going over everything we’d just seen. Than they get to the present point of the story so far, and we get a double image of the outside film, and of the same film being watched by the characters in it, all in sync. This was a marvelous piece of self-reference, which will be appreciated always, whenever we see it, than, now and in the future.

My opinion: 3/5

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The Commitments (1991)

“The Commitments” (1991)

IMDb

hard tenderness

Alan Parker is a generous filmmaker, in the sense that he allows himself to merge into the fabric of his themes, to allow the film to have its own life. That’s something i wouldn’t appreciate in Kar Wai or Welles, whose personal way to bend stories is the very reason why i go to their films. But Parker seems to have his biggest strength in understanding what the film needs, and allowing it to breath. That’s a great quality.

Here he tackles soul music appropriated by irish workers, and Dublin, as tokens for the irish spirit.

The mere quality and expression in the execution of the songs justifies the cult this film as grown around it since it came out. The music is not original, everything we hear are covers of songs for the masters of soul, but the interpretations are so engaging that you can hardly not be driven by them. It worked so well, that a band composed by several actors from this film, performing under the name of the band in the film still has a career today, still performs live gigs.

Among all the good things there is to say about the musical performances, i’ll mention the lead singer’s face. Andrew Strong’s voice delivers all the passion necessary for these songs to work. But his face, apparently so unappealing, forms a series of otherworld expressions, shapes, painful phrases coming out of some upper fantastic world. Parker understood it, and that’s why he frames it so often when he sings, in close-up. He engages us in ways hard to understand.

Of course than we have a funny plot that surrounds the musical moments, but that’s a mere support. The music is the main character, not the supporting bits to a central story.

Irish jokes and the black soul of America. That has proved a powerful mix. This film deserves credit, it’s a fine moment.

My opinion: 4/5

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Monsieur Verdoux (1947)

 

“Monsieur Verdoux” (1947)

 

 

IMDb

 

to watch, and to guess

 

There are 2 obvious films you can see and imagine here.

The story is famous: Orson Welles proposed the idea of this film to Chaplin, wanting to direct him in a movie that wouldn’t be a comedy. Things went wrong, Chaplin wouldn’t be directed by Welles, but bought him the idea, and turned it into a comedy.

What we are left with is a bad film. Chaplin never really adapted to sound film. His best film was made while films were already spoken, but the film was silent. Than he made the Great Dictator which is a good film, but placed in context, for its courage and how it tells us today how the world was partially shaped back than. After this Verdoux, we have 2 interesting films, for the self-reference, not because they are good. And this is just a bad film. We do sense where Chaplin is speaking about himself. The guy working in a bank for a lifetime, only to be replaced by the winds of change, forced to use his “genius” in other ways. Chaplin never took it well that his brightness would be replaced for newer shining talents (like Welles himself). Here we no longer have the tramp, the jokes don’t work now, and i suppose they didn’t already work than. The frantic rhythm of Chaplin’s best silent features is lost, he doesn’t control the pace of the word, the thrill of the dialogue. To me, he was never a great director, except for a few transcendental moments (City Lights the brightest of all), but he always was an incredible performer, with a humanistic sensitivity in his heart. But here, not even the moralizing final moment works.

But something truly exciting can be made here. We can and should imagine what film would we see today if Welles had directed it. At this moment he was developing some of his most powerful ideas. Narrative and Space, backed by Framing and Editing. All conducted by his gripping vision. That’s what he was working on at this moment. Where would he lead this? How would he handle the layers of the different mistresses of Verdoux? Would he change the stance of the camera? Break the linearity of the episodes? Frame each episode in a different way? How would he balance the dialogs with the physical acting of Chaplin? What would the center the project be?

If Chaplin and Welles would get along working together, we’ll never know although i’d guess no. But it’s worth imagining. Here we look at a film that wasn’t, that’s the fascinating part. The one we can look at isn’t really worth it. So, here’s the always interesting case of a not so good film which is worth seeing.

My opinion: 2/5

 

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The American (2010)

“The American” (2010)

IMDb

backfire

The best way to enjoy this film is to be aware of its references, to know by heart the grounds it steps on, and than simply relax into it. To take it for what it is, to go the places it takes you.

This is made surrounding an idea by now relatively explored: to make a genre film which empties its own genre. A film which is its opposite. An ironic approach on an idea, touching it, caressing it, making a homage to it, yet reversing it completely.

The absolute master of this notion was Leone. That’s where we stand here, in the solid building of self-referential irony that he built for us. In my book, Luc Besson also stands high in this corner of the film world. Corbijn was certainly seeking after Leone, so clearly that he makes the direct reference in the film, where we see an excerpt of one film.

So the general idea is that of an anti-film. A potential action film, with a potential action character who is literally running away from action, literally trying to get out of the film where every other character seems to be framing him. That’s the ultimate twist, the ultimate joke on the spectator. We can laugh with the joke. And having George Clooney starring here is a double joke. He built a career around a cool yet funny, funny yet deep guy. He winks to the audiences all the time, creating a kind of second layer of acting, in which you watch the character and watch the guy. Here he gives up on that. He deliberately plays the game of the film, surrounds his own public persona and probably gives us his most important role in films.

*spoilers here*

The story includes a very subtle yet powerful token to its fundamental conceptions. Clooney’s character has to build a weapon, personalized for a certain uncertain job. We see him throughout the film doing it, calibrating it, making it according to the wishes of the person responsible to use it. We see the off field of what we usually see. In film vocabulary, guns are usually irrelevant, a mcguffin at most, usually just a prop. Here we see every phase of its conception and building, and testing. Again, Corbijn builds on the genre, the promise of a hit job, only to deceive us to the very end, when the gun deliberately backfires. What is usually irrelevant (the building of the gun) is brought to the center of the narrative, almost accidentally. This is really great writing, and great filmmaking. I wonder why Corbijn only started directing features a few years ago.

Italy is another little irony. Leone the Italian, would go to spain to film his supposedly American located stories. corbijn goes to italy to film the Leone referenced films that he never shot there.

My opinion: 4/5

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The Last Picture Show (1971)

“The Last Picture Show” (1971)

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the theorist, the lover, the filmmaker

In some fundamental respects, the 60′ in cinema were french. It doesn’t matter that now, four decades later, we can see so many things out of place, such grand ambitions materialized in such small practical achievements. What matters is that the generation of theorists turned filmmakers made its point get through. And the world followed them. Hollywood spent the decade recycling their own worn out models, and by 1970 they were in dire straits. The new generation embraced the french.

Bogdanovich is also primarily a theorist. He thought cinema from the point of view of an outsider, not a practical guy, before he got in. So naturally, among the generation of young American filmmakers, he’d be one of those more eager to transplant the “french method” more unchanged. Their kind of deliberately empty writing, characters as part of a certain style, images as supporters of a certain quite yet desperate mood, and only very indirectly of an actual story.

Map that into a certain idea of the end of a certain kind of rural, puritan way of life that America was going through at this time. This is something one can feel today, but probably will only connect with the people who know the context.

Add to it the sexual passion that Bogdanovich shows for his than lover, Cybil Sheperd. He undresses her on-screen, he puts male characters fighting for her. But behind that we know he’s the one caressing her. Their relation in real life affects deeply how the film and her character are presented to us.

The trouble here is that Bogdanovich is someone who knows a lot about what he’s making, but seems incapable of mastering it properly. He really engaged this crew, the acting is profoundly committed as it is rare to see. But the end result leads no where. I don’t mean this in the traditional sense of a story not having a classic conclusion or a clear climax. I mean that the film is supposed to be “like” some films, instead of having an autonomous life, even if linked to a number of predecessors. It was no easy matter to be successful in a film like this, and i feel Bogdanovich was really close to succeeding. But he doesn’t. At least not in the long run, not 40 years after the film was made.

My opinion: 3/5

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