Only God Forgives (2013)

Only God Forgives (2013) movie poster

director Nicolas Winding Refn
viewed: 02/25/2014

Hey, girl.  This movie is terrible .

Though it comes from the people behind Drive (2011), writer/director Nicolas Winding Refn and star Ryan Gosling, it’s a highly stylized crime film, stylized to the nth degree, to the nigh comical degree.  It’s almost parody.  Or so it feels.

Then it is dedicated to Alejandro Jodorowsky.  So then you think, maybe I missed something?  Maybe there is some playfulness in its arch, over-the-top-ness?  And then you realize that you hated El Topo (1970), so maybe trying to find the quality in this strangely awful film is beyond you anyway.

You being me in this case.

Still.

L’eclisse (1962)

L'Eclisse (1962) movie poster

director Michelangelo Antonioni
viewed: 02/23/2014

My continued march through major films that I have never seen includes films of major directors with whose work I am not familiar enough.  A while back (apparently much further back that I remembered) I watched Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura (1960), which I really liked.  And for some reason it’s taken me several years to return to his well.  But here I am.

L’eclisse is the third film of what has come to be considered a trilogy of sorts for Antonioni, of which L’Avventura is the first.  I don’t know that chronology is as important with a trilogy of this sort, but even if it was, L’Avventura turns out to have been long enough ago that it wouldn’t have mattered anyway.

It’s referred to as his “trilogy on modernity and its discontents” and that’s fair enough to apprise L’eclisse.  To speak to L’Avventura or La Notte (1961), which I haven’t seen, or to draw any of my own conclusions, well, I’m not equipped for that.

It’s Modernist cinema, though, breaking from narrative of clarity and yet quite formalist in its own ways.  The film stars Monica Vitti and Alain Delon, and is set in Rome and Verona.  Vitti is a young woman falling sort of between things, between an old lover and a new lover, a world in which she doesn’t connect.  It’s set in parts at the Rome Stock Exchange, with perhaps a commentary of finance or capitalism or I don’t know.

I guess the biggest upshot of my watching the film was that I didn’t have any clear conclusions.  I listened a bit to the historian on the DVD track speaking about the film and its contexts and found it interesting but realized that I hadn’t gotten to any of those things myself.  It’s one of those films that begs for close reading or analysis.

I didn’t enjoy it as much as L’Avventura, but that may have to do with the tone and intention as much as the intentional diversion of what the viewer is looking for in the film.  It interests me still, but I came away with very little from my viewing.  Yet I can see it’s a complex and interesting film.

That’s all I’ve got right now.  It’ll have to do.

The Wind Rises (2013)

The Wind Rises (2013) movie poster

director Hayao Miyazaki
viewed: 02/23/2014 at Embarcadero Cinema, SF, CA

“The last Miyazaki film.”  That’s how this film has been come to be known and perhaps how it will best be remembered.  That is, unless it turns out to not be “the last Miyazaki film”.  At one point, Ponyo (2008) looked to be “the last Miyazaki film.”  Now it’s just Ponyo.

What “the last Miyazaki film” has come to mean is the last film that he directs.  Since Ponyo, he’s been involved with both The Secret World of Arrietty (2010) and From Up on Poppy Hill (2011), both of which came from screenplays that he collaborated on.  I would actually hazard that The Secret World of Arrietty is a pretty good Miyazaki film (directed as it was by Hiromasa Yonebayashi) whereas From Up on Poppy Hill (directed by Miyazaki’s son Gorō Miyazaki) and The Wind Rises are definitely nice but lesser efforts.

There is a lot of buzz about any Miyazaki film, particularly if this master filmmaker is indeed stepping down not to create any more wonderful movies.  But sadly, these last two have been both much more naturalistic stories, but also quite sentimental affairs.  In some ways the films are perhaps even more interested in Japan itself, depicting a more realistic world, or at least a bit more literal than the worlds of his fantasy films.

But I would argue that fantasy is what makes most animation great, and is the core of the best and most wonderful of Miyazaki’s oeuvre.  In The Wind Rises, fantasy is relegated to the dream sequences, and though there is magic here, it’s steeped in a softened, misty-eyed gaze at one of Miyazaki’s favorite things, wondrous flying machines.

The film is a fictionalized account of the life of Japanese engineer/designer Jiro Horikoshi, who among his aspirations, developed Japanese fighter aircraft for WWII.  Based on a manga by Hayao Miyazaki himself, this story has managed to brook controversy, paying homage as it does to the designer of war machines for the antagonist side of the war.  It’s easy to see what Miyazaki appreciates here, a man who is dedicated to design and engineering and flight, actually quite nationalistic in its way, a man who tried to distance himself from the uses of his developments and technologies.

The film delves into this, how he travels to Germany to gain insights from the Nazi regime in their airpower and technology.  It does sidestep the work of brokering with the devil that could inflame and infuriate people who want to find controversy here, both in its relationship with Germany and its portrayal of Japan.  There is an aspect of denial in this.

Oddly enough, I think if it was more deftly handled, this idea might have come off better.  It is possible to try to appreciate things out of context or in different contexts, but this film is more pure paean and there is a great deal of old Japan lovingly depicted here.

It’s a long film (126 minutes) with lots of quiet moments and slow development, and it feels every bit as long as it is.

The funny thing for me is that back in 2009 when we saw Ponyo thinking it was his last film, it was a feeling that he ended on a very strong note.  I haven’t re-seen the film since then, but it’s fantasy and magic bore great charm and inventiveness, wonder and character utterly unique.  And new.  Here, this feels like a much more unsatisfying ending to a great career.  Not a bad film, but missing a lot of the greatness that one comes to associate with Miyazaki.

Will it be his last in any way?  Time will tell.  And eventually, perspective will be allowed on this film, final or not.

Last comment is that we saw this film in the newly refurbished Embarcadero Theater.  Made in the model of the Kabuki across town, it has a bar and assigned seating, big pleatherish chairs, this new more comfortable and perhaps more elegant or “date night”-friendly style of cinema.  The best improvement to my mind was the layout of the theater which wound up with a much larger screen than my last visit to the Embarcadero Theater.

The kids felt much as I did.  Felix describing it as “sentimental” but neither loving nor disliking the film.

Alice in Wonderland (1951)

Alice in Wonderland (1951) movie poster

directors Clyde Geronimi, Wilfred Jackson, Hamilton Luske
viewed: 02/22/2014

For most families, a flick from the Disney canon wouldn’t necessarily be a change of pace, but for us, that’s what it is.  We have been sort of working our way through the Disney feature films, but very slowly and sporadically.

Disney’s 1951 version of Alice in Wonderland is perhaps not accordingly true to the original text, but it is a lush, gorgeous Technicolor fantasia of its own.  The colors and designs are vibrant and alive.  And while the film’s more or less picaresque narrative keeps it from really becoming quite a great movie, it’s indeed a very fine one nonetheless.

Oddly enough, my kids aren’t all that familiar with the story or the source material, and resultingly, Felix described the movie as “weird.”  Well, yes, Alice in Wonderland is weird, an absurdist fantasy world that has become shorthand for when things get strange.   I tried to explain the term “down the rabbit hole” to them, but I guess they’ll have to wait to hear someone else use that term somewhere to appreciate it.

Favorites of mine include the Cheshire cat, the Mad Hatter and the March Hare, and more.  There are a number of good tunes as well, most specifically, “The Unbirthday Song”.  There are lots of nice sequences.

I’ve always found Alice a little discomfiting in that her whole world, while nonsensical, is also sort of rude and uncaring.  It’s not that I intellectually have a problem with it, but it’s the overall tone of the story that is sort of discordant and sort of disturbing.  If anything, that may well be to the merit of the story, it’s just how it sits with me.

The last Alice in Wonderland (2010) I saw was the Johnny Depp/Tim Burton one, which is quite the departure from the text as well.  I don’t know that one needs a definitive version of Alice.  I quite like Jan Švankmajer’s Alice (1988).  Maybe I’ll have to queue that one up too.

The kids did enjoy it, this Disney film.  It’s quite lovely in its way.

The Ladykillers (1955)

The Ladykillers (1955) movie poster

director Alexander Mackendrick
viewed: 02/19/2014

After watching Alexander Mackendrick’s brilliant The Sweet Smell of Success (1957), I decided to push up his 1955 film The Ladykillers, which had long sat in my film  queue.  It’s one of those films that tends to make lists of “best British films”, another subset of movies that I’m trying to work my way through.  However, the rather painful experience of watching the Coen Brothers’ 2004 American re-make might well have kept this film at bay for some time for me.

It stars Alec Guinness, with a set of false teeth that make him look a bit like Lon Chaney, as the ringleader of a gang of thieves that also include Peter Sellers and Herbert Lom.  They take residence in a strange ramshackle old house of an elderly woman in London, who lives with her parrots and cockatiel.  They pretend to be a bunch of amateur musicians while they scheme to knock over an armored car at King’s Cross station, using their cover to trick the old lady into their scheme.

Actually, the first half or two-thirds of the film, while good, I found a bit more unsatisfying.  There are funny bits and stuff, but it’s a little more ham-fisted that I was expecting.  I don’t really have much experience with the Ealing Studios comedies, so I wasn’t sure how I would enjoy it.

But the film turns a corner in the last act, as things start to go awry for the thieves and the little old lady gets wise to them.  The thieves start killing one another off, one by one, scheming to escape with the loot and getting rather grim comeuppance.  In fact, it goes from a little dark to very black as far as the hue of comedy goes.  It’s not just black in the comedy but it’s a rather dark view of humanity all told.

By the end of the film, I did indeed appreciate its standing in the annals of great British films.  And I don’t ever want to see the Coen brothers’ version again.

Cry-Baby (1990)

Cry-Baby (1990) movie poster

director John Waters
viewed: 02/19/2014

Sometime back I decided to work my way through all of John Waters’ movies.  It’s kind if strange but I never saw Cry-Baby before ever.  I wound up watching it On Demand from the Sundance Channel and oddly noted that it’s running time was less than it ought to have been.  And then there are these weird ellipses in the film apparently where it was cut to commercial by the channel.  And I began to really wonder if I was missing out here.

It’s quite clean if it is the whole film.  I don’t know how many of Waters’ films hit PG-13 but this was his period of gaining the broadest of audiences, following up on his 1988 success with Hairspray.  I’m sure he never envisioned a world at the time when both Hairspray and Cry-Baby were translated into Broadway musicals.

Actually, Cry-Baby is a lot of fun, sort of a musical if not entirely a musical on its own.  This was Johnny Depp’s break-away movie and he’s great in it, though his singing is replaced by the rockabilly stylings or James Intveld.  No matter.  It’s quite fun.

It’s got a typical litany of Waters’ hand-chosen stars and celebrities playing all sorts of oddball characters, enacting a love from the wrong side of the tracks story that is almost downright clean-cut.  (I was missing something, right?)  Traci Lords is kind of perfect in it.

Like I said, I enjoyed it.

Trouble in Paradise (1932)

Trouble in Paradise (1932) movie poster

director Ernst Lubitsch
viewed: 02/18/2014

My ongoing sojourn into “great films that I have never seen” includes all the films of Ernst Lubitsch.  Where to start?  Trouble in Paradise.

I won’t belabor a point here.  This is a wonderfully urbane, sophisticated, pre-code comedy, sublimely written, directed, performed.  Amid its Art Deco sets and pure, intelligent brilliance, it’s a great joy to watch.  Impeccable is a word that comes to mind.

Miriam Hopkins and Gilbert Marshall are a pair of top-notch thieves prancing across Europe, first in Venice and then in Paris, bilking and snatching, always several steps ahead of the game and even one another.  But when in Paris, they fall in to a scheme of managing the millions of Kay Francis, a millionaire widow and her perfume factory.  Love and love’s attractions lead to complications and comic brilliance.

Easily one of the best films I have seen this year.

She Done Him Wrong (1933)

She Done Him Wrong (1933) movie poster

director Lowell Sherman
viewed: 02/17/2014

Mae West, what a voice, what a patter, what a bunch of great lines.  Adapted from a play written by West, She Done Him Wrong packs a lot into its 80 or so minutes, including a very young Cary Grant and some of the most notable lines of West’s career.

Her sexuality is so frank and clear.  There are no bones about it.  It would be frank today.  That’s what makes this pre-code movie such a hoot.

West belts out a few numbers too.  “Franky and Johnny” I’d say is the best of those.  Swell stuff.

RoboCop (1987)

Robocop (1987) movie poster

director Paul Verhoeven
viewed: 02/016/2014

After watching the new RoboCop (2014), I found myself wanting to see the original again.  It had been a long time since I’d seen it and I thought the renewed experience might be enlightening.

Sadly, Netflix had the DVD listed as “very long wait” as much of their DVD’s are showing up as these days.  I’ve come to understand that moniker to suggest eternity in my experience, a very long wait indeed.

So, I saw that Comcast/Xfinity had the original available for $2.99 to watch and decided the trade off to be a fair deal for immediate gratification.  But life lesson renewed, the damn thing was in pan-and-scan and not letterboxed.  Curses, foiled again.

Preamble over.

RoboCop (1987) is indeed an excellent film.  The first of Paul Verhoeven’s American science fiction flicks, it delivered a wonderfully wry and violent commentary on the America of its day, looming technology fears, militarization, corporate control of public sectors all with entertaining action and violence.  Because while there is text and subtext, there is a fun movie to watch first and foremost.

The cast is great: Peter Weller, Nancy Allen, Ronny Cox, Miguel Ferrer, Kurtwood Smith.  It’s uber Eighties.  Yet it also has a great prescience about things to come.  And I always loved Phil Tippet’s stop-motion animation of the big robots.

It’s a leaner, funnier, far more fun film that its eventual re-make.  And the blood and violence, I think, make a statement in and of themselves.

Also, Verhoeven’s comic pop culture advertisements that pepper the film offer amusing ironic commentary throughout.  Something that becomes one of his signature elements.

All the Boys Love Mandy Lane (2006)

All the Boys Love Mandy Lane (2006) movie poster

director Jonathan Levine
viewed: 02/16/2014

All the Boys Love Mandy Lane is an unusual title for a slasher film.  But as the discordance suggests, it’s not your run of the mill slasher film either.

The film fell into a distribution limbo for a number of years.  Originally made in 2006, it only really got distributed last year.  In the meantime, director Jonathan Levine had gone on to make Warm Bodies (2013) and other films and star Amber Heard has gone on to make a name for herself, as well.

My initial thought was that this movie was kind of like a slasher film filtered through The Virgin Suicides (1999), and it’s interesting that that was indeed one of the film’s cited as an inspiration.  It’s an aesthetically pretty film, retro-ish but stylized, a bit more naturalistic.

Amber Heard is Mandy Lane, the pretty blonde that all the boys want to get with.  She’s virginal, good-natured, popular, but somewhat apart from all the others.

An early scene involves a rather gruesome accident at a house party.  The rest of the film takes place a year later.

It’s set at the ranch of one of the teenager’s families, a bacchanal of a long weekend of sex and drugs and booze.  Mandy doesn’t usually go to these things, she hasn’t even ever been kissed.  Whether you know what’s coming or don’t, a sense of looming danger infects the world.

It does turn out to be a slasher film of sorts.  And there is mystery about the murderer, which I won’t unveil here.  I’d say that it works kind of well.

Initially, the portrayal of Heard as every boy’s dream girl sort of perplexed me.  She’s very pretty and blond and has a great figure.  As the film wore on, she kind of grew on me.

Among all the shallow, partying teens, she’s set apart.  Is she a closet intellectual?  A real prude?  Maybe she’s sexually closeted.  That is very carefully suggested at a certain point.  Really, who is she?  What’s going on?

You know, it’s not a great, great movie but I actually did like it.  A revisionist slasher perhaps.  Intriguing.