Lost in the Movies: Movies I watched in 2012

Movies I watched in 2012

Capsule reviews of 15 films viewed since January 2012

(This post originally went up on Monday morning, but was quickly bumped. I fear it's been overlooked since, so I'm re-posting it now; I'd really like to hear back from readers on what they thought of these particular films; also I'd like to highlight "Who's Killing Cinema - and Who Cares", my response to the fascinating David Denby article; it went up middle of Saturday night because I couldn't wait, but deserves a bump now too...)

Histoire(s) du Cinema • The Long Day Closes • Madchen in Uniform • Me and My Gal  Melancholia • North Shore • Road to Morocco  Savages • Shoah • The Story of Film • Super 8   Tangled  Tanner '88 • Ways of Seeing • The Wind in the Willows

Histoire(s) du cinema (France/1988 - 1998)
dir. Jean-Luc Godard

Only when I return to this opus, perhaps several times, will I offer a full-length review. Even to compose a capsule after a single viewing seems a cheat; there's so much to soak up and sink in. Watching the Histoire(s) in an ice-cold room above a garage, as I prepared a cross-country trip, this flickering film was like a fire to warm myself by. Although in French the title has a double-meaning, "story" and "history," perhaps "dream" is the best description. In Godard's impressionistic vision, images from a century of cinema bleed into one another while he offers cryptic and evocative observations on the soundtrack, offering music, sound effects, and titles in conversation with the fragments of cinephilia swirling around us. One can scale any number of intellectual peaks in response (Jonathan Rosenbaum has an epic appreciation of the film on his website, illustrated by at least a dozen stirring screen-caps, including the one featured above); but one can also dive down deep into the subjective swirl of what one is seeing. That's Godard; cerebral sure, but what a sensualist!

The Long Day Closes (United Kingdom/1992)
dir. Terence Davies

Speaking of cinematic sensualists, few can top Terence Davies in that department. Linking his lushly-produced, impressionistic, autobiographical narrative with aural and visual quotations from popular movies and music of the fifties, Davies creates a poetic visual memoir, partly about what happened to him as a boy, but even more about how it felt. Set in the grubby world of the Liverpool slums but stylized with painterly love and care to evoke a feeling of nostalgia, the film depicts what Davies calls an interlude between the death of his tyrannical father and the sufferings of adolescence, a brief time when he was relatively free from anxiety and able to enjoy life both actively and contemplatively. In the latter category, we have long, beautiful shots of the light subtly dappling a carpet through a window and finally (in the closing moments, scored to the title track) the moon appearing and disappearing behind a cloud. To see this on a big screen with Davies in attendance was a treat, as was his discussion afterwards, in which he memorably and euphorically quoted lyrics from Seven Brides for Seven Brothers and practically hugged himself with joy.

Madchen in Uniform (Germany/1931)
dir. Leontine Sagan, Carl Froelich

In a rush to view a dozen or so classics on You Tube that I hadn't found elsewhere, this was one of the highlights. Luminously photographed, with mesmeric performances by Hertha Thiele (as luminous schoolgirl Manuela von Meinhardis) and Dorothea Wieck (as compassionate teacher Frauleine von Bernburg). Though the lesbian theme was more pronounced in the book and play, the film is quite forthright about Manuela's "crush" on von Bernburg, and the film has a palpable overheated quality which goes while with the controlled and inventive Pabstlike direction of Froelich (working hand-in-hand with Sagan, the director of the play). Crackling with that energy that could be found in the better early talkies, and with an ominous air of menace in its authoritarianism vs. compassion story (since within two years Hitler would be taking power), the movie holds up today as a moving melodrama. Thiele and Wieck easily evoke girlish passion and a young woman's uncertain authority, respectively, although ironically they were born the same year.

Me and My Gal (USA/1932)
dir. Raoul Walsh

Also viewed on You Tube, and also crackling with the the energy of early talkies (although this is of the spitfire American variety rather than intense German vintage), Me and My Gal has humorous routines, a charmingly roguish performance by Spencer Tracy as a flatfoot cop trying to woo a waitress, and a shaggy-dog story involving gangsters and prison breaks as well as romance. Most importantly however, it has Joan Bennett, whose wisecracking, sexy-as-hell allure holds the picture together like wadded-up gum, maybe the same gum she loudly snaps from scene to scene. Depicting how-far-are-we-gonna-go necking in all its pre-Code glory, this couple's a far cry from the cheerfully domesticated husband and wife a reunited Tracy and Bennett portrayed in Father of the Bride (1950). These two young lovers have the Depression-era metropolis as their playground and backdrop; meanwhile ever-inventive director Walsh makes creative use of the new sound technology to give them both voiceovers during their makeout sessions. Some films are carried by style, some are carried by story, some are carried by stars. Bennett's a hell of a gal, and as a result this is a hell of a picture.

Melancholia (Denmark/2011)
dir. Lars von Trier

And now for something completely different. With every new film I see by him, my opinion of Lars von Trier grows. I haven't seen Manderlay yet, but The Five Obstructions, Dogville, Antichrist, and now Melancholia paint a picture of the one Western auteur (that I've seen, anyway) able to successfully bridge between postmodern irony, which seems (perhaps incorrectly) inevitable in European art at this stage, and a sensibility of deep feeling and meaning. Following in Antichrist's footsteps, Melancholia negotiates between the gritty texture of a Dogme, neo-neorealist aesthetic and the epic grandeur of a new high-end digital formalism - and it also balances between the tropes of genre (in this case, sci-fi and disaster vs. Antichrist's relationship to shock-horror) and the demands of self-consciously personal art. Finally, both films move beyond modernity to evoke an almost medieval sense of artistic allegory. Melancholia's conceit is wonderful in its zany way, absurd as science, but deeply evocative as myth: a new planet has been discovered "hiding behind the sun" and as it approaches the earth, mankind is doomed. Kirsten Dunst is a bride who leaves her groom before their honeymoon, in one of the most astonishing and effective wedding sequences to open a film since The Godfather or The Deer Hunter; she welcomes the  apocalypse with open arms. Charlotte Gainsbourg, the agent of destruction in Antichrist, here represents the last whisper of humanity that doesn't want to go down without a fight. Neither does von Trier, mixing resignation with defiance in a film that, while not quite as powerful as Antichrist, remains one of the most fascinating features from last year.

North Shore (USA/1987)
dir. William Phelps

A cult classic as much for its corny but warm-hearted sincerity as for its awesome Hawaiian surf footage, this played at a retro screening in Santa Monica this past summer, and the enthusiasm of the audience was palpable. I myself was coming off a rough week, and this was the perfect movie to return a smile to my face. North Shore, a disappointment in theaters which developed a following on HBO and VHS tape, is one of those movies that gets passed between friends, its lines quoted and moments referenced as inside-joke talismans with goofy glee. This is especially true when it comes to Turtle (John Philbin), the ultimate 80s surfer dude who shyly shapes master longboarder Chandler's (Gregory Harrison's) boards and watches resentfully as naive outsider ("a Barney" as Turtle calls him) wins Chandler's trust. Rick is the ultimate fish-out-of-water or, in this case, landlubber-in-water as his previous surfing experience was in Arizona (yes, you read that right). North Shore features cameos by famous surfers like Gerry Lopez and Laird Hamilton (who apparently still gets crap from strangers confusing him with the egotistical asshole he plays onscreen), a winsome love interest in Nia Peeples (who appeared with five other members of cast and crew after the screening, and is still as gorgeous as back in the day), and an ending that manages to disarmingly mix feel-good triumph with its no-competition ethos. My favorite moment in the whole film, however, arrives about halfway through when a photographer is chatting with the hero and somewhere in the background a random boogie-boarder rushes into a breaking wave and then screams as he goes flying through the air. My friends and I used to rewind the tape and watch this blink-and-you-miss-it background action over and over, laughing aloud on each occasion. Good times.

Road to Morocco (USA/1942)
dir. David Butler

This second Bing-Bob road movie is at once charmingly dated, with its pop culture references and World War II setting, and shockingly ahead-of-its-time (in the censor-provoking suggestiveness, its Frat Pack bonhomie, and especially its meta-self-referentiality, shared by some other Golden Age comedies like Hellzapoppin or the Marx Brothers movies, but typically assumed to be a feature of our postmodern age). Road to Morocco is recommended viewing for any younger movie buffs (including this one) who typically would've associated Hope with the "square", Establishment-endorsing figure of the sixties and seventies; here his moon-faced visage bursts with anarchic impatience, self-ridicule, and endless, hilarious lust. Crosby is fun with his smooth, suave, laid-back vibe but it's Hope's show to steal, and he does so vigorously with some of the funniest double-takes I've ever seen (one, following Bing's question "What's that bulge in your pocket?" is so fleeting I almost wonder if it's intentional; but on first viewing I laughed instantaneously and uproariously).

Savages (USA/2012)
dir. Oliver Stone

Touted in its rollout as a comeback for Stone (the Wall Street sequel did fairly well, but both it and W. received mixed reviews at best), apparently Savages was drowned out by the rebooted Spider-Man. I still haven't seen that one, and am in no rush to do, but I enjoyed Savages quite a bit. The tale of two drug dealers, hippie Ben (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and hardcore war veteran Chon (Taylor Kitsch), who want to turn the tables on a cartel that has kidnapped their mutual lover O (Blake Lively), Savages sometimes suffers from some cringeworthy dialogue ("he didn't have orgasms, he had wargasms") but the filmmaking is generally sharp and the narrative entertaining. Obviously Stone was attracted by the good old Platoon duality of Ben and Chon, and he's clearly charmed enough by Lively's allure to devote a superfluous black-and-white glamour montage to her, but it's the supporting performances by older actors that make the film most effective. Salma Hayak, smoking at forty-six, feasts on her incredulous mamma-bear kingpin role, while John Travolta makes the most of a few scenes as a balding, overweight, DEA agent with his corrupt hand in the till (midlife paunch aside, some of that old Saturday Night Fever swagger is apparent as he saunters down the boardwalk with his younger cohorts). Best of all is Benicio del Toro (does he ever go wrong?) who gets to flip his Traffic cop part on its head by embodying a ruthless, grungy enforcer. There's a twisty ending and a number of topical reference points (from Iraq vet Chon's penchant for setting IEDs to the inevitable drug war commentary; nearly thirty years after Scarface Stone's point remains) but at heart Savages is a slick and enjoyable thriller.

Shoah (USA/1985)
dir. Claude Lanzmann

Three relatively light entries and then...this. The alphabet and the cinema make strange bedfellows and for years Shoah has sat uncomfortably along other movies: is it primarily a work of art? A testament? A provocation? All of the above? Claude Lanzmann's legendary 10-hour documentary of the Holocaust, has always unsettled and discomforted those who see art, entertainment, and information as interlocking and inseparable elements of cinema; Pauline Kael, whose touchstone for movies - including great movies - was "pleasure" angrily rejected Shoah and particularly the cult surrounding it, spurring major controversy in critical circles. I found Shoah on You Tube, divided into fifty-nine 9-minute segments, and watched an hour each night. The only time I've ever really cried watching movie was the interview in the barbershop. It was not very cathartic; Lanzmann allows no such easy outs. Shoah is as much about memory as anything else: there is no stock footage and certainly no recreations, only mournful faces recalling their suffering and empty landscapes haunted by the evil events that occurred there decades ago, but within collective memory. Like Histoire(s), this is a film that will get the full treatment from me on another occasion, because I couldn't do it justice now, in a paragraph or two nine months after I watched it. But for now I'll note that, while it no longer seems to be available on You Tube, you can watch it on Netflix. I strongly suggest that you do.

The Story of Film: An Odyssey (UK/2011)
dir. Mark Cousins

Here is a documentary that emphatically does seek to weave art, entertainment, and information into one ambitious, messy, unique package. It's been criticized in some quarters as too idiosyncratic but I found it thoroughly invigorating, particularly in the first and last third of the movie (the middle passage, covering the well-trod ground of mid-century cinema, gets a bit lost in the anecdotal and familiar). A BBC miniseries based on Cousins' innovative and highly readable book, this journey is narrated by Cousins in his lilting Irish brogue and is pointedly revisionist - proudly pointing to a pluralist, multivocalist vision of cinema rather than a Grand Narrative focusing on a few magical moments in the medium. This is where the series will be most illuminating for Western viewers: it opens up a world of forgotten pioneers and latter-day Third World expression which not only highlights overlooked areas on the cinematic maps but recontextualizes and refreshes some of the most famous movies of all time: this is a film unafraid to pair the Bollywood musical-cop-romance classic Sholay, which few Brits or Americans will have heard of, with a little movie called Star Wars as two populist entertainments that revolutionized cinema in the seventies. And indeed, while casting a skeptical eye on the "bauble" of Hollywood (Cousins' analogies and frameworks here are simply ingenious; he doesn't just discard an old narrative, he has the courage to invent a new one, and it's the strategy and structure which make this film more than just a collection of observations), Cousins eagerly celebrates the highbrow and the low, the conventional and the inventive (though his emphasis is on the latter, in all its manifestations), the celebrated and the overlooked. To me, the best film of 2011. (update 8/1: the following summer, I uploaded a complete visual directory with screen-caps from every single film featured in the series)

Super 8 (USA/2011)
dir. J.J. Abrams

A charming idea, and one that leads me to wonder how many other filmmakers could inspire an entire movie devoted to paying homage to their themes, subject, and style. Certainly Alfred Hitchcock (Mel Brooks usually parodied broad genres, but he devoted an entire film, High Anxiety, to riffing on this one director). Definitely Walt Disney, although at a certain point that legacy becomes bigger than one man. Beyond that, there are dozens, maybe hundreds of directors who could be pastiched in recognizable fashion, but wider audiences probably would not catch on. Where Super 8 missteps, and fundamentally fails, is in confusing two distinct groups of Spielberg entertainments: the pure popcorn thrill rides, full of cartoonish human carnage, and the sentimental heart-tuggers, with their quieter momentum and sincere humanism. Jonathan Rosenbaum has long highlighted a misanthropic vein beneath Spielberg's supposedly warm-hearted image, but in fact this applies primarily to the first group of films (Jurassic Park and The Lost World, the Indiana Jones films - particularly Temple of Doom). But Super 8 expects us to abruptly shift gears from watching an alien monster munching on innocent townspeople to sympathizing with it as it makes contact with the little boy and reveals it just wants to "go home." This only serves to highlight the cruelty and undermine the emotion - at the end of the day, Spielberg maintains an uneasy balance between showman and artist (unlike, say, Hitchcock, he seems to veer between the two extremes rather than combine them in a single package). The wider audiences along with the director's detractors, and apparently Super 8, are primarily aware of the showman and, in paying Spielberg tribute (with Spielberg's own participation, which adds an interesting twist), Abrams and Super 8 actually do him a bit of a disservice.

Tangled (USA/2010)
prod. Ray Conli

Widely touted as a long-awaited return to form for Disney (for sixteen years after The Lion King, the House That Walt Built suffered in comparison to its owned-but-not operated innovator Pixar and the Dream Works Shrek series), Tangled was at once a welcome re-engagement with classic fairy tales (Rapunzel finally joining the Disney princess family) and an embrace of new technology (this was the first Disney film to be rendered entirely in 3D CGI). The title and subject matter were illuminating. Disney's success has always been predicated on two elements: one, the appeal of its stories and characters, and two, the quality of the animation (sometimes criticized as too generic and smooth-edged, but unquestionably sweeping and inventive at its best). Tangled is very Disneyesque in the first aspect, but insufficiently so in the second. I was surprised and charmed to see that the characters were as likable and imaginatively created as those from the vault - the tradition of distinctive character animation continues at the studio. On the other hand, the animation itself, despite the luster of the three-dimensional style, had a surprisingly flat and generic feel. There are some exceptions - certainly the boatroad through the floating candles is impressive - but the forests onscreen don't breathe with the depth of Bambi or the stylization of Sleeping Beauty; the setting have a kind of generic solidity that misses the cluttered charm of Pinocchio or the dazzling grandeur of Beauty and the Beast. Apparently, this format is Disney's new direction, but it remains to be seen if they can recapture the transportive visual worlds of their classic films as the last remnants of cel animation shrivel up and waste away like the witch at the end of Tangled.

Tanner '88 (USA/1988)
dir. Robert Altman

More wryly amusing than laugh-out-loud funny, this HBO collaboration between Altman and Doonesbury cartoonist Gary Trudeau starts in archly satirical mode but as it moves through the campaign season (its episodes unveiled in tandem with the actual Democratic primary schedule) we start to become more and more sincerely sympathetic with the honorable if somewhat disengaged Jack Tanner, and more and more invested in his quixotic and fictional campaign. Besides, how satirical can one get when society seems to already be satirizing itself? The 1988 campaign, particularly the general election (before which Tanner ends, on an ambivalent note) was when the hypertrivial method of campaign coverage - and campaigning itself - truly began in earnest; uninspired by eventual candidates Bush and Dukakis, the media would instead focus on pointless hot-button issues like flag burning, or misleading voter scare-tactics like the Willy Horton ad. In contrast to all of this, Tanner is a decent guy with a real concern for people, yet there is something a bit vapid about his persona. We hear little about specific policy and when his campaign videographer (hilariously played, in one of the series' few outright broad turns, by Matt Malloy) captures him an in impassioned, offguard moment, the campaign offers a new tagline: "For real" - yet all we've actually heard him do is offer some general thoughts on leadership and name his favorite Beatle. Confronting Tanner with the reality of 1988 America (most memorably when he and his staff visit the Detroit ghetto, and the project strays as far from comedy as it will ever get, culminating with Tanner's discovery of a dead child), Altman and Trudeau both demonstrate the politician's willingness to go outside the boundaries of mind-numbing Beltway mentality and express doubts about whether Tanner, or indeed any politician, can truly grapple with these programs, especially through the current system. Ultimately, Tanner '88 is less about answers than observation, weaving its way between reality and fiction until we're no longer sure which is which, if we ever were.

Ways of Seeing (UK/1972)
hosted by John Berger

This tremendously entertaining and thought-provoking miniseries begins in a museum, or apparently a museum, as any art show might. Our host, seventies long hair overflowing, a loose-fitting funky shirt hanging off his shoulders and arms, contemplates Botticelli's Venus and Mars, its fame rather familiar, the conventional museum setting perhaps numbing us to the painting's original power, especially as we're further distanced by the filter applied by the camera and the TV (or in my case, computer) screen that we're watching this on. And then Berger, without turning to acknowledge the camera, reaches forward and cuts into the painting on the wall, carving Venus' face from the larger context and creating an isolated fragment in much the same way modern mechanical reproduction does (more than ever in the age of the internet). The unexpected gesture is shocking, subversive, provocative, and very funny. Before watching this series on You Tube (where you can find it in its entirety, in full color unlike some earlier available copies), I read the book and while fascinated by Berger's ideas the presentation seemed incomplete (fragments of text and tiny black-and-white reproductions failing to evoke as full a picture as the TV series) and I was skeptical about Berger's larger points and aims.

Watching the series, however, it all makes sense: Berger is questioning not only how the new media context changes our perceptions of art, but how the very legacy of art appreciation is tainted to begin with extra-aesthetic concerns disguised or "mystified" as aesthetic - most controversially, he compares oil paintings with slick modern advertisements and contends that their purpose and approach are fundamentally similar. All in all (and if you have all day, or several) Ways of Seeing makes a fantastic double feature with Kenneth Clark's equally individualistic yet pointedly more traditional Civilisation, demonstrating both the appeal and pertinence of a more mythic approach and the satisfaction taken when taking it all down a peg, as Berger does in his side-by-side comparisons, his discussions with women of their presentation in classical art, his meta-observations not just about paintings but the medium he himself is using to present his case. Appropriate for a show which questions the conventional academic reading of artistic nudity, Berger's fundamental cry is that of the little boy in Hans Christian Anderson: "The emperor has no clothes!" But his project is not only negative, but positive - a celebration of works whose vitality transcends or at least reinvents culture and context. At its core, Ways of Seeing wants to remove or at least recognize as many obstacles as possible, so that we can see more clearly, with our own eyes, instead of seeing merely what others want us to see. Whether or not you agree with his point, it's a series that must be seen and grappled with - I've included part 1 of the first episode below along with the other You Tube clips.

The Wind in the Willows (USA/1983)
dir. John Driver

I've included this for completist purposes, as it's the only Wind in the Willows adaptation I haven't discussed on this website (see my Willows series for the rest). A video adaptation of the Children's Theater of Mineapolis production (the above picture is from the show, not the movie), with the masked characters taken out into the fields and forests of the countryside, this version is most noted for featuring Julee Cruise, later the chanteuse in "Twin Peaks," in a bit part. Looking at that picture, I suspect that originally the play featured the storytelling characters narrating the actions of the actors in animal costume, who probably performed in pantomime, and this strikes me as a better approach than the one the video takes (we see the actors in heavy costumes and masks covorting outside with labored, exaggerated gestures and an obnoxious and grating voiceover). All in all, I finished the tape, which I found in a video store going out of business - again for completist purposes - but I certainly wouldn't recommend it. This is how my Willows viewings ended, not with a bang but a whimper.


Sam Juliano said...

"Fantastic round-of of dense capsules with several supreme masterpieces in the mix."

Terrence Davies' THE LONG DAY CLOSES is one of my favorite films of all time. If I am asked to comprise an all-time 'Desert Island' Top 10, this film would proudly stand with the lot. I love more than I can say here in a brief response--it's emotionally cathartic, poetic and lyrical and it's sublime and meditative. It's a film to gush at, as I did months ago during the unveiling of a stunning new print at the Film Forum! I now believe Von Trier's MELANCHOLIA is also a masterpiece, and it was on my Top 10 list for last year. The first 15 minutes provide for a viewer epiphany. SHOAH is one of the greatest films of it's kind' the German MAEDCHEN is a classic film, and one of the earliest lesbian-themed films; I saw ME AND MY GAL at the Pre-Code Festival and liked it quite a bit; WIND IN THE WILLOWS as you have noted with many remarkable posts is magnificent as is Grahame's incomparable children's novel; I am no fan of SAVAGES, which to me is overkill and slick in the worst sense; I will soon take on THE STORY OF FILM and can't wait; TANGED is nicely done with some striking set pieces (the lamps really striking) and a nice score.

Joel Bocko said...

Really glad you could drop by, as I knew several of these films were your favorites. Particularly Ling Day Closes which I saw you list as a top 10 on Jason's site. Still haven't watched Story of Film yet? Fish's gonna kill you haha. Can't wait to hear your thoughts when you do though.

Jeff Pike said...

Hey Joel, you reminded me today about Super 8 and that got me thinking. I agree it makes a very hard turn from horror into tearjerker, and not elegantly, though I thought both were managed pretty well once in. I liked it because of the things it did so well: the vivid train wreck, the kids' zombie movie, decent effects, good pacing, and reasonably believable family interpersonal dynamics propelling the story. I take it more as Abrams project than Spielberg homage, which I admit might be a fine distinction. But Abrams is interesting to me because he still appears to be evolving. The various impressions he does -- of Gene Roddenberry in Star Trek, of Rod Serling in Lost, of Spielberg here -- seem extraordinarily vitalizing to me of so many things otherwise mostly worn out by now. Anyway, interesting bunch of movies here!

Joel Bocko said...

JPK: Wow, somehow I forgot this back in October (even though I was approving comments then!).

Seeing Abrams that way is kind of interesting, as an avatar of the reboot era although perhaps the fact that I'm wary of reboots only makes him seem more suspicious in my eyes haha...

Actually, I watched most seasons of Lost with some regularity but even as the twists and turns kept reeling me in I grew frustrated with the extent to which the series relied on trite expressive shorthand to convey some flimsy impression of the characters' inner lives. Each character had a "look": Sawyer's mouth-slightly-open peeved narrowed-eyes, Kate's pursed-lip upward-eye look, Jack's deer-in-headlights-but-I'm-running-into-this-car-anyway confusion. After a while, this method of characterization became so rote it was tiresome, and I saw some of the same thing in Super 8, like by borrowing certain Spielberg tropes, he was getting all the baggage that came with it.

That said, I did enjoy the first half of the film quite a bit. I could cheerfully sympathize with the energy of the kids "just wanting to make a movie" and the respectful classicism of Abrams' initial approach (obviously a nod to Spielberg's movie-movie desire to make each shot interesting and inventive, something most action auteurs have no interest in now) was a refreshing tonic. So maybe this capsule was too harsh - but in the end I was disappointed by the glibness of the way the film cluelessly combined the two Spielbergs - although if it's dramatically uninvolving, it's certainly analytically interesting.

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