Monday, December 31, 2012

Film Journal: Week Ending 12/29/2012

Seven Chances (Keaton, 1925) **** (A) 

Leans heavily on Idiot Plot – does this guy really propose to woman after woman without thinking to mention the $7 million? – but grousing about plot points with Keaton is an exercise in missing the point. Keaton spends half the film's short (60 min.) running time exhibiting a deft touch with small, impeccable, precise sight gags (watching him chase ladies up and down the stairs was a favorite) and the next half in full-tilt propulsive madness, running from an anthill swarm of jilted gold-diggers while displaying levels of disregard for his body that cinema wouldn't see again until around the time of Jackie Chan. Keaton must have been made out of vulcanized rubber and steel. (To name just one trick that really should have killed him, watch for a somersault down a sand dune that is just demented.) If one of my revelations about Chaplin a couple weeks ago is that he invented a large part of the cartoon world's visual vocabulary, I think I've got to give credit to Keaton for inventing Wile E. Coyote.

By the way, I'm now a strong proponent of muting the tinny, distracting music out of these movies and subbing in a mix of your own. I went with Philip Glass' "Glassworks" for this one and it actually seemed to sync up well to the mood. In any event, I found it much more compelling than the ubiquitous ragtime, which I switched on a couple times and immediately turned off again.

The Muppet Christmas Carol (Brian Henson, 1992) *** (B)

Am I crazy, or is this the best of all the Muppet films? Being able to lean on Dickens' classic structure, imagery and language helps, and getting Michael Cain to play Scrooge without a hint of shame for slumming with felt socks didn't hurt, but the songbook is strong, the jokes are solid, and the art direction is great – a couple shots even approach the artistic. Maybe it's that each of the Muppets gets a character well-suited to their (its?) established persona and then plays that character, rather than trying to shoehorn a Muppet character into the narrative. So it's not (for example) Fozzie Bear filling the Fezziwick function within the narrative, it's Fezziwick as played by Fozzie Bear, if that makes any sense (or even if it doesn't). Waldorf and Stadler as Marley(s) are apt fits; Kermit may have been born to play well-meaning doormat Bob Cratchit. Anyway, I like the Muppets in their show, I don't particularly like their movies, and I liked this quite a bit. So there you have it.

The Loneliest Planet (Loktev, 2011) **** (A)

Plays basically like an excellent short story, Hemmingwayesque in the best sense, with extremely sparse yet extremely specific characterization of a couple of young lovers adventuring their way through the mountain wilds of Georgia with their hired guide. Almost the entire running time is given to tiny incident that gives subtle shades of meaning to the essence of who these people are, until one of those tiny moments turns out to be so massive that it threatens to upend everything, coloring all that came before and all that comes after (the film mirrors it obliquely near the end). The unbelievable part is the way the damage that the incident creates is allowed to play out in exactly the same kind of meditative subtle picaresque scenes that marked the film prior to the incident, resisting any hope of easy characterization or resolution. It's entirely possible to create a dozen plausible "readings" of the film's themes, which include (in no particular order) gender roles, courage and cowardice, and instinct vs. deliberation. I suspect this is one of the more argued-over films (per viewer) of the year. Sophomore director Loktev is masterful at building and sustaining a mood of unease; nearly every peaceful moment seems loaded with the expectation of violence. First-time actor Bidzina Gujabidze should be Oscar nominated, if the movie is eligible (it premiered in Toronto in 2011).

The Sound Of Music (Wise, 1965) ***1/2 (A-)

Old-school Hollywood singin' and . . . well, singing'. Not a whole lot of dancing other than a view ballroom scenes. Nevertheless, this is worthy. Some pacing problems make it sag in spots, but most of the songs are evergreen, as are Andrews and (surprisingly, especially) Plummer in the leads. What I always lost in the pan-and-scan TV showings of my youth (or childhood) was the panoramic spectacle of Austria, which lends spectacle to the proceedings and enhances the pathos of Captain von Trapp's love for his country and his need to escape it.

The Crocodile Hunter: Collision Course (Stainton, 2002) **1/2 (B-)

Half of this movie is the most inept, poorly-acted, confusing, dumbly executed, sophomoric, misshapen mess of a spy movie to not yet have been featured on MST3K. Luckily, the other half of this movie stars STEVE FREAKING IRWIN, who took a weapons-grade levels of not giving a shit, dressed it up in awesome short-shorts and a mullet, drizzled it with crazy, and then ate it. There's something undeniably riveting about watching Irwin do what he does best, which is: (a) jump into rivers in the dark to wrestle full-grown crocodiles while they try to kill him; (b) hold insanely poisonous snakes by the tail while they make very serious efforts bite his testicles; (c) hold other extremely poisonous bugs and spiders next to his face while poking them with a stick; and (d) doing all of this while talking to the camera with the boyish exuberance of a Ritalin-starved nine-year-old showing off his brand new, fully functional lightsaber.

Here's the thing: HE NEVER STOPS TALKING TO THE CAMERA, even when the croc fight is clearly not going the way it's supposed to and therefore his (real-life) wife might get (real-life) eaten, and especially not when the spies are trying to whatever the top-secret whatever that the so-called plot apparently whatevered into Irwin's possession. This isn't so much a "collision course" as it is "Steve Irwin pretty much totally ignores the spies around him, treats them as the minor annoyance that they are, and never even learns they're spies, all while continuing his entirely straightforward course, which involves shooting an ostensible episode of his show." I thoroughly doubt that it was meant that way, but it's possible to read this as a meta-commentary on the pointlessness of such plot devices when placed beside the fascination of real nature, perhaps best exemplified when Irwin retrieves the movie-fake satellite-data-thing Macguffin by plunging his hands into a hot pile of what I'd be willing to bet $100 is a completely real pile of crocodile poop. In any case, this is one seriously nutso-pants movie. I kind of liked it.

Elf (Favreau, 2003) *** (B+)

Thoroughly silly but ultimately ingratiating, ELF distinguishes itself from most Ferrell-based manchild stuff by leaning hard on his natural underlying sweetness and through the wise choice to have everybody around him (Caan, Steenburgen and an uncharacteristically de-twee-ified Deschanel) to play the premise entirely straight. There's something undeniably awesome about Buddy's reaction to "Santa's" visit that wouldn't have worked if the people around him were equally buffoonish. Seems destined to make the rotation of beloved Christmas movies (the inclusion of Peter Billingsly in a cameo is a hint that this was their goal), but even if it doesn't, we'll always have Peter Dinklage playing a beloved children's author as a stereotype of asshole CEO corporate entitlement. As all children who believe in Christmas can recall, angry violent Dinklage is the most famous Dinklage of all.

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