August 31, 2009

'Transsiberian' Off Credibility Track

There's a reason few Hitchcockian films are as good as those directed by the master himself.

Take Transsiberian, for instance: director Brad Anderson's tale of an innocent American couple caught up in a world of cross-border drug smuggling and corrupt cops whilst traveling on the famed Trans-Siberian Railway. It's got all of the ingredients necessary to make a suspenseful film in Alfred Hitchcock's style. Except believability.

And that's the most important part.

The problems start with the depiction of the couple, played broadly by Woodly Harrelson and Emily Mortimer. Harrelson's Roy, a hardware store owner who finds himself and his wife Jessie in Russia after journeying to China on a charitable trip with his church, is gullible to the extreme. After "befriending" a bunch of people on the train (a process that invariably includes imbibing large amounts of alcohol), Roy carries a smile on his face that seems plastered (literally) on while gawking at the most unexciting sights--such as as slew of snow-strewn trains. He even exclaims, "I'm an American!" during one purportedly tense scene...a cry echoed in remembrances of stereotypical tourisms past. Meanwhile, Jessie is nearly as credulous, falling for the charms of a shabby, not-really-charismatic couple, Carlos and Abby, they meet on the train (played, respectively, by eye-candy actor Eduardo Noriega and Kate Mara, in a particularly dour performance) and hanging out with them, often in the same cabin.

Well, I didn't buy it. This couple is traveling in another country, and they don't get the least bit concerned that their creepy, tiresome cabin mates--who alternate between acting amorously and argumentatively in full view of these strangers--scream "suspicious characters"? Surely they don't remain with these hangers-on solely because of their scintillating conversation? (Certain awkward scenes set in a restaurant support my suggestion that there's a "communication breakdown" effect that precludes any credible feelings of attraction among the parties.) It certainly isn't likely that Roy would confess the fact that he's having marital problems with Jessie to Carlos only a day or so after meeting him. And it's quite improbable that Roy would leave his wife for a day to go exploring without notifying her or giving her any means to contact him. (Perhaps their cell phones were edited out of the script.)

Still, the burden of credibility can't be placed entirely on the actors' shoulders. Anderson's direction is sloppy, like the script, which he co-wrote with Will Conroy. In addition, the suspense-on-a-train theme has been done so frequently (and so much better) that the whole flick seems derivative, like a cross between Hitchcock's The Lady Vanishes and Sidney Lumet's Murder on the Orient Express...without the breathless excitement such cinematic journeys entail. Appearances by the usually fine Ben Kingsley and Thomas Kretschmann help somewhat, but in the end, Transsiberian is waylaid by an overly ambitious treatment that doesn't satisfy the viewer after building up a not-so-intense atmosphere. It's like waiting a half-hour for the subway and then discovering it's crowded and not air-conditioned.

My advice: Rent a Hitchcock instead.

August 29, 2009

'Crowd' All I Remembered It to Be

This will be a short post, but it'll include a huge recommendation...of a sort.

John Schlesinger's 1967 film Far from the Madding Crowd, adapted by the Thomas Hardy novel of the same name, should remain relatively unknown. Why? Well, let's put it this way: A crowd flocking to Crowd would dilute the movie's small "in crowd" fan base. Part of the appeal, perhaps, is the flick's relative anonymity.

And maybe that's just as well. The film, which in part concerns the romantic entanglements of Bathsheba Everdene, a headstrong landowner resolutely played by Julie Christie, has great direction, expert performances (particularly by Christie and her three suitors, portrayed by Alan Bates, Peter Finch and Terence Stamp), beautiful cinematography by Nicholas Roeg, and a gorgeous score by Richard Rodney Bennett. All of these qualities point to a movie that should be better known...but watching Crowd is something like finding a diamond needle in a haystack--like the ones dotting the English countryside that the film so ably showcases.

You don't want to share it with everybody. Just with the ones who will appreciate it.

Let Crowd remain little known. All the more for people to treasure when they discover it.

August 27, 2009

'Madding' Movie on Its Way

I can't wait. I'm finally going to show Far from the Madding Crowd to Trudi.

The 1967 John Schlesinger film, an adaption of the Thomas Hardy book by the same name, has long been a favorite of mine, and Trudi--my (very) significant other--will be seeing it for the first time. Because she's a dog lover, however, I probably should warn her that there are some quite upsetting scenes pertaining to canine reactions to sheep...a scenario that basically sets up the other developments in the movie.

Still, it's a great flick, and I'm looking forward to seeing it again. Bring it on, Netflix!

August 24, 2009

'Love' Emulates Life...a Bit Too Much

It turned out that Love on the Run was as good as I expected it to be--and as real.

It seems to me that director Francois Truffaut was incapable of fashioning an impersonal film. Love is no exception, though there was, perhaps, a bit less substance in this 1979 film, the last in his series of Antoine Doinel alter-ego pictures, as much of the flick comprised scenes from earlier films such as The 400 Blows and Bed and Board. What's moving about Love, however, is the fact that the film--which primarily is concerned with the romantic (mis)adventures of Doinel (portrayed, as always, by the ever-youthful Jean-Pierre Leaud)--reveals the protagonist as something of a lost soul, despite his maturity. Newly divorced, Doinel falls in love with seemingly every beautiful woman he meets...and even reconnects with an old flame who is coping with the tragic loss of her child.

Of course, such newfound erotic freedom doesn't seem to suit the rambling Antoine, who can't help but wreck his relationships through his infidelity. He has to start over--and that's where the movie hits hardest.

As an individual who has been through a divorce, I was empathetic, to a certain extent, with Doinel's travails, and nodded at his attempts to rebuild himself while somehow coming to terms with the highs and lows of his marital life. But this was hard to watch, as I predicted, and many of the scenes (including the positive memories recollected in fragments of Truffaut's earlier films in the series) were earnest almost to a fault. I'm not certain how much of Love was based on Truffaut's earlier experiences, but the flick had an honesty suggesting that the great director knew what he was talking about. There's even a scene in which the now fully grown Doinel has a chance meeting with his now aged stepfather, a complex figure in The 400 Blows who ultimately couldn't provide his stepson with a proper paternal governance. This segment is the most powerful in Love, and it also smacks of truth...and reality.

I wish there were more of that in contemporary film--but that would mean I would be less comfortable watching such movies. Still, I have to give Truffaut credit: Very few directors know how to make their audiences so ill at ease while ensuring their pictures remain enjoyable. That takes talent. I wish I knew Truffaut's secret.

Perhaps it has something to do with reality. And experience.

August 23, 2009

Next Up on My List: 'Love on the Run'

I've avoided it for a long time--but not because I don't think I'll like it.

Francois Truffaut's Antoine Doinel series of films (which include masterpieces such as The 400 Blows and Stolen Kisses) are always wonderful when I bring myself to watch them.

It's just that I have to bring myself to watch them.

As a writer and director, Truffaut had an insight that enabled him to produce work that--though often whimsical--struck a realistic aspect, emulating life as we know it. That includes all its vicissitudes, triumphs and failures. Great as his art is, I often have trouble approaching it initially, owing to its close subject matter. Once I'm involved, however, I'm into it.

I suspect that 1979's Love on the Run, which I still haven't seen, will be the same. My significant other and I received the DVD via Netflix and expect to watch it soon. I'm awaiting the viewing with trepidation. I already know it's good. Just how good--and true to life--worries me. It's likely that I'll be empathizing with and getting annoyed by Doinel in this film, as in the previous ones, and that's what I'm concerned about. Caring about the characters in a film takes work...and it may not always be rewarding.

I'll just have to grit my teeth and jump right in. How I wish, sometimes, that I could watch bad movies uncritically!

August 21, 2009

Holy Smoke! 'AMOLAD' Has Improved With Age

I have to confess something. I never liked The Red Shoes.

There's something fake about it--contrived. A forced love story set in the world of ballet. It's just a little arch, if you can excuse the inadvertent pun.

But that doesn't mean I'm not a fan of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, the creative directing (and sometimes writing) duo who helmed TRS. The talented twosome, in fact, spawned one of my favorite films, A Matter of Life and Death, which I just revisited today with great pleasure.

It hasn't gotten worse since I last saw it. In fact, it's gotten better.

AMOLAD should be on every fantasy-film fan's list of must-see movies. The story of a British fighter pilot (dashingly played by David Niven) who jumps from his burning plane and is lost in the English fog by the heavenly conductor who is supposed to escort him to the Great Beyond, AMOLAD enchants with its visionary view of this world and the next. Niven, who falls in love with an American (played with appropriate gusto by Kim Hunter), is cast perfectly as the man who wants--and is warranted--a second chance at life, and the great Roger Livesey is at his mellifluous best as the good doctor who tries to help him. The cinematography, which captures images such as an assembly line of wings in heaven and a great, moving staircase lined with statues of famous personages from history, is sumptuous, and the writing, credited, like the direction, to the P&P team, is sharp and charming.

The fact that this film isn't very well known is an injustice in the world of cinema. Perhaps it has something to do with the unwieldy title. The flick has appeared with an alternate name in the US, Stairway to Heaven, which is cliched but less clunky than AMOLAD. Still, this picture should be more frequently viewed by cineastes; it's one of the most imaginative movies I've seen, and the wonderful special effects still hold up, despite the fact that the film came out in 1946. This is a movie I'd recommend without question, but be prepared: It might make you want to watch more P&P movies, and despite the fact that their oeuvre remains impressive, few, if any, of their other films approach AMOLAD in quality.

Certainly not The Red Shoes.

August 20, 2009

Holding 'If....' Accountable

A couple of days ago, my significant other and I turned the clock back and watched Lindsay Anderson's classic rebel-rouser If.... via Netflix. You remember this one: English public-school student Mick Travis (snarkily played by Malcolm McDowell) and his cronies, beaten down (and just plain beaten) by the "whip" upperclassmen, decide to fight back and wage all-out war against the school. With its surreal shifts from color to black-and-white photography, scathing put downs--Travis blasts one whip with the line, "The thing I hate about you, Rowntree, is the way you give Coca-Cola to your scum, and your best teddy bear to Oxfam, and expect us to lick your frigid fingers for the rest of your frigid life"--and unpleasant depiction of the British school system (an allegory, apparently, for society), the film pulls no punches and hits hard at the end, resulting in a battle with, as Travis would say, "real bullets."

There was a problem, however, that compromised my enjoyment of the film. In the past, I've viewed the film as purely allegorical and bearing no resemblance to current events, owing to its fantastic touches (a bishop rises from a drawer in the headmaster's study to shake hands with Travis after the student almost murders him) and radical characterizations. ("There's no such thing as a wrong war," opines Travis in one scene. "Violence and revolution are the only pure acts.") But now, in the light of the aftermath of the 1999 school shootings at Columbine, Colo., and the 2007 murders at Virginia Tech, among others, If.... doesn't seem so innocent. Publicity for the film at the time appeared to advocate rebellion, in the "spirit" of student protests of the time, and that generated some controversy in its day. Yet the film, with its allegorical and philosophical leanings, seemed removed from reality and hardly literal; it was a comment more on the status quo rather than an open letter inciting armed battle, though its marketing efforts appeared to take advantage of the sentiments of the era.

Still, in this day and age, the ramifications of If.... appear to be broad--and, in this writer's opinion, more than a little disturbing.

The question is: Can art be held accountable for human behavior, even if there is no direct link from one to the other? If....--the successor to Jean Vigo's short school-rebellion flick Zero for Conduct--may now be considered the grandfather of militant-student movies, preceding films such as Heathers and Elephant by more than 20 years and certainly outdoing them in overall treatment and technique. As such, Anderson's film must be viewed in a certain light: that of a world in which the threat of firearms may be present at schools worldwide.

I'm not suggesting that If.... is entirely responsible for the culture of today. But while I was revisiting the film after not having seen it for some time previously, I was unnerved by the fact that it ends violently with a gun battle at a school--started by the protagonists. Is it possible that such a depiction could register in the hearts and minds of certain individuals who really have a beef with society and aren't afraid of acting on it? Is it possible that this fantastic, surreal film could be taken too literally?

Anderson would probably scoff at my concerns, but I can't. If a movie is good enough, people will get involved in it--no matter how out-there the treatment is. There are Star Wars fans who espouse a Jedi religion, for Pete's sake! There are people who speak Klingon! Movies will never stop being real to people, and people will never stop immersing themselves in them. I don't think If.... has the following of Star Wars or Star Trek, and that's probably a good thing. I do think, however, that it has a lot to answer for, and the way to address it would be to study it...perhaps in the classroom. Making students aware of it and inciting debate would temper its more superficial qualities and perhaps get people thinking about its subtext rather than its surface.

Better to think before acting anyway, isn't it? I believe Travis would agree.

August 19, 2009

'Julie & Julia': Massacring the Art of French Cooking

Someone has to do something. If not, we'll all be subjected to further attacks from this insidious enemy.

I'm talking about the trend of impeccably researched impersonation, a crutch that talented actors ranging from Charles Laughton to Robert Downey Jr. have used to portray historical characters under the rose-tinted lenses of yesteryear. One of the latest instances of this infernal fad to grace our screens occurs in Julie & Julia, an interminable, Rashomon-esque depiction of one blogger's quest to replicate all of TV-chef-cum-Joan-Sutherland-soundalike Julia Child's recipes from her book Mastering the Art of French Cooking. In J&J, directed by Nora Ephron, actress Meryl Streep is given what appears to be free rein to present her interpretation of Child's mannerisms--from her singsong vocal inflections to her enthusiastic gesticulations.

To that I say: yuck.

It's one thing to portray a personality accurately and believably. It's another to go over the top and present a caricature. Streep, unfortunately, does the latter. Her bubbly, vociferous imitation of Child is unbearably cartoony, as if it were studied to the nth degree...but not understood. The unlucky viewers of J&J are provided with a series of episodes dating back to Child's years traveling and living in France, where her romance with butter is discovered (surely there's a more interesting dish with which to convey this attraction than sole meuniere) and her prodigious sexual appetites are appeased (by husband Paul, played with little excitement by the usually reliable Stanley Tucci). These moments are interspersed with scenes relating to the Child-emulating blogger, Julie Powell (Amy Adams, in a cutesy performance), and her husband Eric (Chris Messina, who, sadly, does not get much more to do than eat the results of his wife's experiments, crow about how good they are and extol the merits of New York's least-praised borough, Queens).

So what went wrong here? Surely, with this much talent, J&J should've been good, right?

In an ideal world, that probably would've been the result. But director Ephron has let her actors run amok while the script--co-written by Ephron and Powell and based on the latter's eponymous book and the writings of Child and Alex Prud'homme--has meandered into episodic panels that never mesh as a whole. Streep in particular has been let loose, and her brassy portrayal of the much-beloved Child never registers as true. It seems too close...too familiar; the nuances are broad and untrimmed. Child was an extremely interesting person, but she is reduced in the film to a one-dimensional scribe with a funny voice and a penchant for butter.

Movies, in this writer's opinion, should be more roux than butter.

It's not Streep's fault entirely that the film is a failure. Ephron's direction is lax and unimaginative, and the endless jumps from Child's life to that of Powell's become tedious after only a few such instances. Plus, the cinematography offers no substantial insights into Child's love affair with Paris or French cookery...except those that are all too obvious. (For example: Paris is beautiful, butter is delicious, idiots are idiotic.) A more streamlined vision of this story would have been more appropriate--and more palatable, to boot.

But that wouldn't have pleased the masses, would it?

It's too easy to appease audiences by telling them what they already know. Why not tell them what they don't know--but should? After all, a piece of sole cooked in butter may be pleasant though unexciting. Add some salt and sauteed onion, however, and you might have something.

J&J really needed a few cups of nicely browned onions--and a warning: Avoid this flick if you have high cholesterol. As Ephron wrote the script for the Streep-Jack Nicholson vehicle Heartburn, I would expect she'd understand that some meals just don't agree with people.

The Movie Loony Is Now Open for Business!

That's right--there's a new critic in town (as if we really needed another one). What The Movie Loony hopes to do is provide the best film reviews possible while tearing down overpraised, vaunted junk and building up great art. This blog will be opinionated, obnoxious and downright kvetchy. It also will be insightful and--hopefully--a font of useful information on the cinema of the past, present and future. The Movie Loony aims to offer readers a site that will recommend great films and pan lousy ones in an effort to guide people toward the light and away from the darkness. The reason: No one deserves to see a bad movie. But everyone deserves to see a good one.

Let the kvetching begin!