Saturday, April 14, 2007

Recent Screenings

"Movies are a world of Fragments."
Jean-Luc Godard

It's been a dull time for me cinema-wise. A lot of decent but not great films. Two of them were actually quite good most of the way through and then blew it with stunningly dumb endings. I don't have any recommendations this time, but most of these films are worth watching.

The Prestige
(2006) - Written and directed by Christopher Nolan. Starring Hugh Jackman, Christian Bale, Michael Caine, David Bowie and Scarlett Johansson.

Magic, mystery, Memento, Tesla, Batman, Bowie, Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale. . . . I was looking forward to this new offering from Christopher Nolan. It's beautifully photographed, with some stunning visuals by cinematographer Wally Pfister. The cast is quite good, though Scarlett Johansson seems a bit lost, due perhaps to her undeveloped character. Bowie does a fine turn as Nikola Tesla, with Gollum - I mean, Andy Serkis - as his assistant. I enjoyed the first two thirds of the film - the Pledge, and the Turn, to use the film's terminology. A magic trick gone wrong leads to someone's death, which, in turn, leads to a rivalry between two magicians that ultimately turns to an escalating battle of revenge. Unfortunately, the last act - the Prestige, as it were - starts to fall apart. The revenge scenario grows dull instead of building up to anything interesting, and the lame, overly neat ending left me in disbelief. "You've got to be kidding."

In the battle of 2006's "19th century magic movies," I have to side with The Illusionist. I like a film about mystery and magic to be founded in reality. Even the "ghost" sequences in The Illusionist can be tied to a craze in the 1860s for producing spectral images on stage using mirrors and shadows. The climactic part of The Prestige, on the other hand, which holds out so much potential with the introduction of Tesla's experiments in electricity, simply winds up being silly. The Illusionist also wins in terms of writing, with a well-structured plot that develops its characters better and does a more interesting job of touching on politics and class. And despite Pfister's stunning images, I think The Illusionist was ultimately a more poetic film.

I really enjoyed Memento, but Batman Begins and The Prestige make me wonder if Nolan isn't an illusionist himself as a director. He's great at visuals and creating mood, but dark hues, intense stories, and brooding actors don't necessarily add up to profound thought. Stephanie Zacharek, who writes for Salon, and who I've come to increasingly admire as a film critic, says it better in her review of The Prestige: "For Christopher Nolan, darkness seems to equal depth -- when, really, sometimes darkness is just a big hole." Read her entire review.

Intrus, L'
[The Intruder] (2004) - Written and directed by Claire Denis. Cinematography by Agnes Godard. Starring Michael Subor.

In some circles, Claire Denis is one of the most important directors working today, and her film Beau Travail (1999) one of the greatest films of the last decade. I can't say I personally connect with her work, but I do give her credit for trying something different. She has taken to heart Godard's quote about fragments and developed a body of work that truly reflects this. I'd love to tell you the plot of L'Intrus, for example, but La Reina and I, despite our graduate degrees, literary backgrounds, and having seen over a thousand films, couldn't figure out what in the hell was going on. Which is the point, I guess. Denis' films aren't really meant to be watched like other narrative films. She's not telling a linear "story" as much as she's imparting bits and pieces of a world, or of peoples' lives. And she's not using the ordinary language of cinema - traditional screenwriting, a certain film structure, common acting techniques, etc, - to impart this world. Her cinema is highly visual, with very little spoken dialogue, and a restless, provocative use of sound and music. The problem, however, is that she teases the viewer with the sense that there IS some kind of a narrative - you just don't know what it is. It's a different experience, say, from some of Jean-Luc Godard's more non-linear works. If you can't figure out a narrative in Week End, that's okay, because you know the narrative's not important. In theory, I like what Denis is trying to do, but in the end, I find her films more annoying than liberating.

But, again, at least she's trying to do something interesting.

If you ask me, the real strength of these films has less to do with Denis and much more to do with cinematographer Agnes Godard. [No relation to Jean-Luc.] I have to say, her work on Beau Travail and L'Intrus ranks as some of the greatest film photography of the last twenty years. There are some lingering shots of clouds and water in L'Intrus that you want to go on forever. You want to inhabit that space. If you could live there, it would feel like heaven. I'd be very curious to know what these films would be like without Godard's cinematography. Not nearly as interesting, I would guess. Both films hang almost entirely on her tremendous visual sensibility. I look forward to seeing more of Agnes Godard's work in the future.

The Reckoning (2003) - Terribly directed by Paul McGuigan. Starring Paul Bettany, Willem Dafoe, Matthew Macfadyen, Vincent Cassel, and Gina McKee.

No. This didn't work. The Albino Monk from Da Vinci Code plays a medieval priest who does some really bad things and runs away. He encounters a traveling company of actors, led by Willem Dafoe. They wind up in a village where a young boy has been killed, and a woman - an organic farmer or something - is accused of being a witch and a murderer. The formerly albino monk now renegade priest decides to solve the mystery and bring about justice. Oh, and he falls in love - surprise - with one of the actresses. (In the medieval touring company, not on the film set.) A king is involved somehow, and he sends one of his own investigators, played by that dude from Pride and Prejudice (not Colin Firth, but the long-haired guy in the version with Keira Knightley.) Vincent Cassel plays a really bad French guy - no, wait, Cassel is French, but the Duke or whatever he plays is English. I think he's English. He's a pedophile. Cassel's character, I mean, not Cassell himself. Maybe they are French, I forget. But the movie was shot in Spain. I remember that. The actors put on a morality play in order to solve the murder. The Duke guy gets upset. Somebody dies. The fake-looking medieval people have incredibly fake looking snow that keeps landing on their noses and not melting. And you want to yell at them, "Hey, brush off that fake snow! It doesn't look real sitting there on your nose!" You get some flashbacks. Willem Dafoe does his best to keep cool and not break out laughing at the bad script. The albino monk dude does pretty good, though not as good as he did in that movie with Russell Crowe - when they're on the big ship, fighting the French and playing violins together. But there's something wrong with this film. It feels like it was made for late-night cable TV or something. A low budget and terrible directing cancel out the good actors. You see a film like this and wonder how the director was allowed to make OTHER films. Too bad. Medieval, lust-filled, renegade priests solving mysteries and fighting pedophiles sounded like a cool idea.

Blow Dry (2001) - Directed by Paddy Breathnach. Starring Alan Rickman, Natasha Richardson, Bill Nighy and a bunch of young actors I think I'm supposed to know but don't

If this didn't have such a great cast, I fear it would've been a truly sucky film. But, hey, it's got Alan Rickman and Bill Nighy, so you know it can't be all bad. They play rival hairdressers. Nighy wants to become three-time hair-dressing champion of England. Rickman has retired but gets coaxed back into competitive hair-dressing. The national championship, as it turns out, is taking place in his tiny English village. Imagine that. There are some lesbians, one of whom used to be Rickman's wife. He has a teenage son who falls in love with the cute teenage daughter of his rival, Nighy. You see why this could've really been bad. Josh Hartnett, whom La Reina thought was kind of hot, plays Rickman's son. Hartnett's an American actor, and his attempt at a Yorkshire accent left the Brits on IMDB screaming bloody murder. They really ripped him to shreds, saying he ruined the film. Which was interesting, because I couldn't tell there was a problem. So, if you're not English, and you don't know that Hartnett is American, you may not have a problem with that.

Oh, one of the lesbians has cancer. That's kind of a heavy aspect of the film. Somehow you're supposed to feel torn up about that, while, at the same time, you laugh at typical homosexual hairdresser jokes. Kind of a weird mix. But Natasha Richardson does well with the cancer thing. The screenplay is by the guy who wrote Full Monty. The DVD tells you that, because they want you to buy this movie because you loved the other one. But it's not nearly as good as Full Monty (if you even thought that was good.) But then you knew this already, because you had never heard of Blow Dry, had you?

Nighy and Rickman are great. Yeah. Without them . . . well, as I said. As it stands, Blow Dry won't "blow" you away. Ha!

By the way, in Germany, this film was called Über kurz oder lang, which I find endlessly amusing for no good reason. But it sounds better to me. Like it could be a Wim Wenders film or something.

Calendar Girls (2003) - Directed by Nigel Cole. Starring Helen Mirren, Julie Walters, Ciarán Hinds, and a bunch of older women

This was La Reina's pick. It's got Helen Mirren. Hey, I'll watch it. It's also got the woman who plays Mrs. Weasley in the Harry Potter movies. She's very good in this. Instead of cancer, someone in this film has leukemia. And he isn't a lesbian. I'm trying to figure out if there's some kind of trend going on that I didn't know about: rural British comedies featuring teminal illness. Their equivalent, perhaps, to Hollywood's obsession with gore films? What does this signify? Is it some kind of post 9/11 thing?

Helen and Julie live in a lovely English village, but they're bored with their very traditional women's group, so they decide to put together a calendar of older women who appear topless. It's in order to raise money for a wing of the hospital dedicated to the person who had leukemia. The film is based on a true story. It's funny, well-written for the most part, and it has Helen Mirren in it. It could have had Alan Rickman and Bill Nighy in it as well, I'm sure. But they didn't do this one. The calendar is a big success and the women go to Hollywood. The film bogs down at that point and becomes kind of predictable. But everything works out in the end. Except, of course, for the guy who had leukemia. But even that is portrayed in a touching or hopeful way. Or at least with grace. La Reina gave it a thumbs up. I gave it a non-committal shrug.

The Contender (2001) - Directed by Rod Lurie. Starring Joan Allen, Jeff Bridges, Gary Oldman, Christian Slater, Sam Elliott, and some other people.

This was an interesting political thriller for the first two hours, then it totally choked at the end, blowing a ten-point lead in the last six minutes, when it was unable to score a single basket. What happened? So many good actors and such a smart script. Then, evidently, the screenwriter drank "Stupid-Hollywood-Potion," which damaged his brain and turned this intelligent film into a dumb, feel-good flick, with a totally unbelievable plot resolution. "She did WHAT on purpose? You've gotta be kidding me. Nobody would do that! Hey, get the damn fake snow off you nose, it's really irritating!" As with The Prestige, my anger at the stupid ending left me with mixed feelings about the rest of the film.

Joan Allen does well as the woman set to become our first female Vice President. She has to go through an intense vetting process, and it turns out there may have been some sexual scandal in her past. What's she's hiding? Are the Republicans just out to get her? The film was made in 2000 and, evidently, at that time, there may have been some bad feelings in the air over Republicans scouring the personal lives of Liberal political figures. So this turns out to be a revenge-fantasy film, where the Democrats actually stop the bad guys from being so mean to them. Jeff Bridges is funny as a Clinton(Bill)-esque President, but he seems kind of like Jeff Bridges in other films. In my opinion, Gary Oldman steals the show as the mean Republican out to get the poor, mistreated Liberal woman. His character could have easily been a stereotype, but he makes him much more interesting to watch. Sam Elliott is very good. Slater's okay. Mariel Hemingway shows up for a moment - I'm not sure why. Rickman and Nighy don't do much with their non-appearances, but just knowing they could have been in the film makes me feel better about the world.

As I said, the first 120 minutes are pretty good. A solid look at the political process. Then, well, you get the feel-good ending and the ridiculous plot device to save the day. Deus ex machina and all that. Nobody, however, has a terminal illness in this one. That was kind of a relief.


crystal said...

Hi William,

I remember seeing a story on 60 Minutes years ago about the real-life Calendar Girls. Haven't seen the movie yet, though. I did see a movie with Helen Mirren, though ... a pretty bad one, but she was young - 2010, the sequel to 2001 Space Odyssey.

I was kind of disappointed by the Prestige too, though I liked learning about Tesla.

The Reconing sounds like the Seventh Seal meets the Evil Dead :-)

cowboyangel said...

Hey, Crystal. I didn't know Helen mirren was in 2010. Interesting. Yeah, I never really understood the need to make a sequel to 2001. It seemed like a sequel-less movie to me. But, then, there was a book of 2010, so that explains that, I guess.

The Tesla part of the Prestige was really interesting, I thought. What, excatly, was he doing up at that enclave in the woods? How did he get there? Where did he go? They could've made an entire film about him. It makes me want to read more about him, definitely. Have you ever come across a good book on his life and work?

Seventh Seal meets the Evil Dead! :-) Something like that, only not nearly as good as either one.

crystal said...

Wikipedia has a really interesting page on Tesla - I wrote a little about him and the movie here. That picture you posted of the light bulbs in the ground was a real experiement of his :-)

Jeff said...

I know that I haven't seen most of these yet. Calendar Girls I'm not sure about... I may have seen it. I can't remember. All I know is that Helen Mirren is so good she has managed to salvage every film she's been in except Caligula, but we won't hold that against her. Speaking of which, you sort of have to admire her for being game about doffing her clothes occasionally even as she gets up in years.

This is an interesting list to me because you've listed a bunch of my favorite actors in some of these supporting roles, but somehow the films are missing the mark, eh? David Bowie as Tesla. It sounds perfect, it makes you wonder why it didn't work. Same with some of these others, like Willem Defoe, Alan Rickman, Gary Oldman, and Natasha Richardson. All first rate, but sometimes that's not enough to overcome a bad script and poor directing.

Interesting list. I'm looking forward to the next one. Hopefully there will be something I've seen, and I'll be able to add an interesting comment. :-)

cowboyangel said...


I remember you writing about him and the movie, but re-reading your post, I see you had info about the transporter machine. Interesting, to say the least. I wish they had covered it more in the film. i found that part unbelievable in the end, which, if I had known more about Tesla's experiments, may not have seemed so strange. thanks for the note.

cowboyangel said...

David Bowie as Tesla. It sounds perfect, it makes you wonder why it didn't work.

Well, I think it worked for many people. If you take it as a fantasy film, then it's probably not bad. But I wanted more, given the nature and themes of the film. It's implausibility may not bother everyone.

Willem Defoe, Alan Rickman, Gary Oldman, and Natasha Richardson. All first rate, but sometimes that's not enough to overcome a bad script and poor directing.

Bad writing has killed an innumerable number of films. Much more than bad directing, even. Each of the four actors you mention did well in the films I saw. They were often the best part. There's actually a whole book to be written - if it hasn't already - on the worst films featuring great actors. I remember one Cary Grant film - Mr. Lucky - which would've been pretty terrible without him, but he actually made it worth watching. And there are many other examples. Sometimes, however, even great actors can't save the dogs. Defoe in The Reckoning simply couldn't do it - though he tried.