Saturday, January 1, 2011

Out with the Old

In the hope of starting off the new year without any leftovers from 2010 waiting for a write-up, I'm putting everything that I've seen since I started this blog out there. The first three are from the past week or so and deserve a normal review, but are getting a brief one instead. The two Melville movies are from further back; I just never built up the courage (i.e was too lazy) to do the research on the director that would give the movies the context they needed. The rest, I'm writing down in the interest of documentation. I told myself that I didn't have the time to mention any movies that I watched on DVD (all of my reviews are movies I saw in theaters), but in 15 years, how else will I remember how much fun I had watching Jonah Hex? 

The Party (1968)

Peter Sellers as Hrundi V. Bakshi, an Indian wannabe actor inadvertently wreaking havoc at a Hollywood mogul's party. He was supposed to be on the blacklist but instead ended up on the guest list. Sellers is up to his usual clumsy schtick here, but there's a good deal more pathos than in The Pink Panther, which was also directed by William Blake. Hrundi is a sympathetic character, a misfit with a habit of accidently embarrassing himself rather than a baffoon. What's more ridiculous is the faux sophistication of the Hollywood elite and the fancy home they find themselves in, which Sellers/Edwards mocks in the same way Tati did in Playtime (which Edwards admits having been inspired by). Like in Playtime (1963), where an elegant restaurant falls apart and transforms into a raucous dance club, the austere modernity gets turned into good natured mayhem. The Party has a similar leisurely pace as Tati's movie, taking its time to reach its frantic conclusion, but it's more laugh-out-loud funny, even if some of the gags fall flat. It also boasts some distinctive '60s flavor and a message about the value of outsiders and misfits that's really kind of sweet.


THX 1138 (1971)

     George Lucas's first film bears more resemblance to Tarkovsky than to his later SFX extravaganzas. It's certainly as emotionally cold as Solaris, which is fitting given that the main characters, THX and LUH, live in a world that doesn't allow any emotion whatsoever. The two do find love together early on in the movie but instead of being the sentimental kind, it's brief, elusive, and hardly recognizable. Actually, since Solaris came out in 1972, it's fun to imagine Tarkovsky looking to a George Lucas movie to get the ponderous art-house feel he wanted.
     THX opens with creepy music, electronic bleeps, and blank and white images on screens being monitored by an army of bald thespians in white suits (this includes the women). Nothing entirely original about Lucas's dystopia; there's Orwellien surveillence and mandatory emotion suppressing pills à la Brave New World. Robotic police forces patrol the city and mindless consumerism has become the new religion. But it's the little things that count; Lucas has created his world with such inventive detail and care that I couldn't help getting enthralled. The little machines that stick tubes inside noses at the hospital, the wall-to-wall whiteness of the dreamlike prison sequence, the hologram entertainment and robotic masturbation machine (apparently added in for a recent release), the robotic confessionals, the futuristic courtroom... it's all fascinating. Lucas has almost the same aesthetic control as Kubrick in, say, A Clockwork Orange.
     But if Lucas already knew how to manipulate his audience's eyes, he hadn't quite figured out how to manipulate their minds. Moviegoers didn't fall for a love story where love not only loses, but doesn't remember to show up in the first place, and THX failed to make a dent in the box office. I liked the story, despite some of its familiarity, but I had to wonder if Lucas was being sincere with his anti-authoritarian, anti-capitalist vision. After all, Lucas has become that authority.
     Turns out the message might not be as incongruous as I had believed. Here's Lucas in his own words: "why do people go see these stupid popcorn pictures when they're no good? Why is the public so stupid? That's not my fault. I just understand what people like to go see, and Steven has too, and we go for that."If Lucas really is that cynical, than THX is a movie that comments on its own director. George Lucas might have made a world where people are controlled by technology because that's the fashionable and obvious way to make a dystopia, but I think the man might have a genuine interest in mind control. Only instead of being the observer, he soon figured out he could earn a much better living being the practitioner.


Inside Job (2010)

     Director Charles Ferguson covers the mess of the 2008 financial melt down with clarity, justified anger, and the soothing voice of Matt Damon. Government officials Summers, Geithner, Bernanke, Greenspan, Paulson, Gramm, and more get plenty of blame heaped on them for being inextricably linked with Wall Street and Wall Street gets shown as the mecca of greed, high risk behavior, and insane practices it really is. Banks bet against their own securities, rating agencies get paid to label even the worst derivatives bundles AAA (the highest rating), and bankers snort cocaine, hire prostitutes, and kick back in their penthouses and private jets. I'm sure most of this is familiar ground for those who keep up on these things, but the movie does an exemplary job of tying all the abuse and insanity together and showing the extent to which it's ingrained in our system. A little more surprising is the way business schools are exposed as a main cause of the distortion of economics. It's fun watching the futile evasive tactics of Glenn Hubbard, who heads the Columbia business school, was the chief economic advisor for Bush, is on the board of Met Life, and gets major moolah as a consultant for various firms. If the conflicts of interest aren't bad enough there, consider the case of Columbia professor Frederic Mishkin, who was payed 125K to write a report on financial stability in Iceland (Iceland went bankrupt shortly thereafter). When Ferguson asks him why the title of the report now reads Financial Instability in Iceland on his resumé, he squirms a little and says that everyone makes typos. It's a very thorough film, but one should be warned that the main focus is definitely on Wall Street. The effects of the recession on the American people get a cursory glance, but I'm guessing Capitalism: A Love Story is a better movie for examining the impact of the crisis on Main Street.


Army of Shadows (1969)- There's not much glory in Melville's movie about the French resistance. The resistants spend most of their time hiding, killing people who sell them out, and rescuing or not rescuing captured fellow members. They spend very little time collecting Nat-zi scalps. And the only thing they can cling on to is their willingness to sacrifice everything for their ideology--which makes them heroes, in a way, but not especially heroic ones. Melville has made the definitive resistance movie here; it's powerful and sad, and death hangs on in every shot. 8.7

Le Samouraï (1967)- Melville's minimal and highly stylized gangster movie also features a certain resignation towards death on the part of its main character. Pretty boy Alain Delon plays Jef Costello, a hitman who does everything from killing to feeding his canary with expressionless cool. The film is directed with the same precision that Jef uses to carry out his jobs, but Melville is considerably more detached from his story than he was for Army of Shadows. Still, it's a pleasure to watch. 8.5

Movies seen on DVD

Elephant-8.3- Gus Van Sant's take on Columbine feels very personal.
Jonah Hex-3.1 A masterpiece.
Apocalypse Now-10 As brilliant as always
Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay-6.3 Fun but very minor.
Une Partie de Campagne- 8.5 Renoir's famous short is poetic and wise.
Purple Rain-6.4 Prince is pure sexiness.
Solaris-8.8 Tarkovsky's sci/fi masterpiece.
Un Conte de Noel-7.1 Depressing, boring, masterful. Didn't like it, but points for being good.
LoL-6.3  Popular French teenage comedy. It's only redeeming element is the incredible Émile Bertherat in the role of Paul-Henri.
The Inglorious Bastards (1978)- 7.4 War-sploitation at it's best.

Movies that I saw in film class and that we only saw part of

The Servant-awesome
La chambre verte-decent
Le plaisir-super duper
New York Stories-eh
The Unbearable Lightness of Being-yes
Death of a Salesman-no
Le Diable au Corps-hmm

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