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My thoughts about movies and TV shows I've been watching

See also my blog on books: Elliot's Reading

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Why Moon feels quaintly out of date

Duncan Jones's 2009 sci-fi film, Moon, gives the recently anointed Sam Rockwell a chance to play three roles: 3 cloned versions of the protagonist, Sam Bell, who is finishing, or so it seems, a three-year stint on a lunar mining outpost. Inevitably, this film seen today will call out for comparisons w/ its most obvious antecendent (2001: Rockwell's only "partner" in his lunar expedition is an even-tempered computer servant w/ the voice of Kevin Spacey - this is already seeming like a horror movie! - reminiscent of Hal) and the more recent The Martian, about an astronaut mistakenly abandoned on the surface of Mars. Sadly, Moon comes up on the short end of these comparisons, primarily, I think, because it's a movie with a lot of weird technical twists and a very hard to follow plot sequence - including a lot of confusion that isn't well resolved about the time setting - the future? the present? the recent past? - (The protagonist watches 1980s TV to pass the time and all of the computer gadgetry looks weirdly out of date - but if the setting is 20 or so years ago, how come we don't know about these lunar outposts?) - but with no real development of character. (The Martian was all about human ingenuity, and 2001 was about the surprising, in its day, bond between man and machine.) In other words, it's a film that's all in the head and not in the heart, and that requires an extraordinary suspension of disbelief from the outset. There are a few clever twists, granted - we do get an answer, for ex., to the initial question that will trouble all viewers: Why is one guy left alone on the moon to run this entire operation? That said, Moon feels surprisingly quaint and out of date; maybe that's the point - with this 80s retro look and unglamourous lunar settings - it's about a mining expedition after all, not about experiments w/ life in orbit. (Additional note: DJ seems unaware of the meaning of the "dark side of the moon," where this film is set; all of the exterior scenes are filmed in darkness. Of course there is darkness on the dark side of the moon, but there is an = amount of daylight; The dark side of the moon is never exposed to Earth, but it is exposed half the time to the sun.)

Saturday, March 17, 2018

The beauty and despair of Bergman's darkest film, The Passion of Anna

Nobody goes to an Ingmar Bergman movie (pace Smiles of a Summer Night) to be cheered up, but perhaps The Passion of Anna (1969) is the darkest of all his movies, and this darkness of mood and vision is made all the more weird and striking by the look of the film, one of the first (maybe the first) Bergman film shot (by Sven Nykrist) in color. The look of the film is beautiful throughout, lonely but striking winter exteriors on a Baltic island, interiors with warm lamplight and muted sunlight through shades, incredible close-ups with beautiful half-light on the attractive lead actors (most notably one sequence on Liv Ullman in which the only light seems to come from her blue eyes). But the story Bergman tells in yet another chamber drama - only 4 main characters, and one secondary character - is of a world in which everyone is debased, full of shame, struggling against pent-up violent urges that occasionally explode with ruinous results. Bergman has often been criticized, rightly in my view, for his misogyny - in so many films his female leads are mentally unstable, clingy and dependent, out of touch w/ reality, unfaithful, threatening - but in this film he goes one better, now his a misanthrope altogether. The lead, Max von Sydow (Andreas) among other things drinks to excess and then brutally slaps around his partner, Ullman (the eponymous Anna). One of the mysteries of the film - never quite resolved in fact - is that someone on the small island kills and brutalizes animals. One of the misfits on the island gets blamed, and beaten, for this, leading to his suicide. Perhaps he was guilty; or perhaps it was Andreas's only friend, an architect who keeps a weird collection of news clippings and other documents are crimes and social aberrations. Who knows? (Perhaps a second viewing would clear some of the mysteries, though I doubt it.) The point is that everyone on the island is duplicitous, guilty, escaping from something, abusive, and dangerous. There appears to be no way out and no possible resolution (the island setting adds to this feeling of isolation); this is a film - great at times despite its harrowing, dark vision - from an auteur whose mind, at that point in this life, was at a point of despair.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

There's one good thing I can say about Wonderstruck but that's it

Let's start with something positive, OK? Todd Haynes does a fine job in re-creating the look and feel and sound of life on busy midtown Manhattan streets, mid-day, in 1977 (although his re-creation of E 81st Street looks more like E 181st Street) and he does a fine job as well w/ his extended interior sequences in the Museum of Natural History - following 2 boys rushing around among the crowds of visitors and then after hours tucked away in a museum cranny: nice sequences, interesting lighting and pacing - even if the museum is already a bit of a cinematic trope (Squid & Whale, q.v.). That said, Wonderstruck is a horrible film in almost every imaginable way. How shall I count them? (Spoilers to follow, I guess): First, how can we possibly believe that a 12-year-old boy, stricken deaf (temporarily? That's never discussed) when he is on the telephone during a lighting strike who leaves a hospital bed and takes off - from rural Minnesota no less! - by Trailways bus for NYC where he spends several days roaming around - and no one misses him or seriously searches for him? And what the parallel plot (in 1927) about a 12-year-old girl who has complete deafness who leaves her wicked, wealthy father in Hoboken and crosses the river to NYC, tracks down her mother (a famous actress of the silent screen), wanders around in same history museum and eventually is taken in by her older brother who then - for the first time! - enrolls her in a school for the deaf and her life turns around so that 50 years later she's a gorgeous (Julianne Moore) grandmother of Trailways boy? OK, I can accept, sometimes, extremely unlikely plot developments but this movie goes beyond the beyond: Trailways boy goes to NYC in search of info about the father he's never known. He sets off because he found a bookmark w/ the name of a bookstore among some papers Dad left behind. And this is a clue that will lead him to his father? A bookmark? Anyway, he arrives in NYC, almost immediately meets another young boy who takes him on a tour of the Nat Hist Museum - and it just so happens that the long-lost father had worked setting up diaramas for the museum! Seriously? I won't belabor these and other absurd plot elements any further but have to point out the central problem: Why is this young boy in desperate search for into about his father? True, his father and mother never married - but what's w/ the big secret? Why won't his mother (conveniently dead now, from a car crash) - or anyone else in his family or small town - tell him who is father is or was? Especially in that his mother (Michelle Williams) took him in youth to see the Nat Hist Museum and a ceremony for this father (which the boy oddly cannot remember)? And as to the father - after all the build-up - there's nothing whatsoever mysterious about his life or his death. He came to Minnesota to work on this project, had a relationship w/ Williams, that ended, he went home, later died of "a bad heart." Without tension, build-up, or surprise, there's nothing to hold our attention or engage us in any way w/ this young boy and his journey of discovery.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Further note on the retro style of The Lure

An additional note on the extremely odd Polish film The Lure, probably (certainly) the only mermaid-zombie musical: Having watched a brief documentary on the making of the film, I'm glad to note that it is in fact a period piece, set in the mid 1980s, so the retro feeling of the film does not reflect contemporary styles and trends in Polish culture. The filmmakers started off with the goal of making a film about the mermaid myth, but updated with a horror/zombie touch and with the mermaids made to look grotesque rather than alluring; when they found that a well-known Warsaw nightclub, now defunct, was available as a location they built the look of the film around that club: very disco, with revolving lights and glitter all around, and then the musical score seemed to follow that style lead, with a not of #s in the style of 80s music videos as well as a few big staged traditional musical #s, for which the director credited the influence of Fosse. I'm not sure if the film rose to the level of fulfilling its vast ambitions or whether the filmmakers even recognize that many people will find the film comic, even ludicrous, but my guess is that they're open to all reactions: It's a copious film and one of a kind.

Monday, March 12, 2018

The best ever Polish zombie-mermaid musical film: The Lure

There can't be any other film like this one: a Polish musical about zombie mermaids. Sounds like a joke, right? And in some ways it is; The Lure (2015), by Agnieszka Smoczynska (I had to look that one up!) is so over the top and beyond the pale that you have to completely give yourself over to the world of this movie or not even bother to watch it. It's beyond criticism, in a sense, as it AS and her team deliberately break all the rules of credibility - combining into a surprisingly successful mashup of several movie genres. Though nobody would or should go to this movie for its plot, here, as best as I can understand it, is what happens: Two attractive young mermaids (Golden and Silver are their names; oddly, the blonde is "Silver") surface in present-day (I think) Warsaw (I assume) and get a job as part of a rock group (The Lure) performing in a sleazy nightclub. Silver falls in love w/ the guitarist, which is fine, except that she can't have sex because she has no human sexual  organs below her waist. She arranges for a "transplant," her lower half replaced by a standard female lower-half complete w/, as she says, "pussy," but there's another catch: If a mermaid has sex with a human male she much bite his throat out and gorge on his heart and other organs. This sometimes gruesome narrative is told via several musical #s, reminiscent a little of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, including a few #s performed in the nightclub and others in the street, such as romping with a vice officer through the streets and tunnels of the city. The nightclub, the music, and the city itself all look and sound as if they're about 1975, and I can't tell if that's meant to be the period setting, if that's the way contemporary Poland actually looks and sounds, or if that's just another weird facet of this mash-up. With better distribution, this film has the potential to be a midnight-screen cult classic, a la Rocky Horror, but failing that, though it's by no means a film for all viewers, it's worth a look if you're seeking something completely different and you're willing to suspect all disbelief.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

The Darkest Hour is Oldman's film all the way

Director Joe Wright's The Darkest House (2017) is really Gary Oldman's film, as his portrayal of Churchill is what the movie's all about, a tour de force, of course, as he's in virtually every scene and totally dominates the screen every time he appears. Of course he has all the good lines, in his public speeches, his cabinet and war-room meetings, and in his private conversations; all of the other characters are a blur or a vacuum. The movie begins w/ WC's surprise appointment as PM and follows him through his management of the Dunkirk crisis, with the UK army entrapped in France and near total collapse and defeat. There was pressure on WC to begin peace negotiations w/ Hitler, and the core of the movie is his resistance to those pressures and insistence that the UK fight "on the beaches, on the hills, etc." - in his famous oration to Parliament. The film will give you a good sense of the political forces in place at the start of the war, of how close the UK came to defeat and surrender, which would have had untold consequences across the world, and of the awesome responsibility of wartime leadership. That said, the film will not give you much sense of the personal and private Churchill or of his relationship to anyone but himself - compare The Crown, which showed very well his relationship later in life w/ QE2 and his artistic and literary side (in retirement). Some of the elements are already familiar tropes: WC's overbearing personality as he works w/ a young secretary/typist - didn't we have the same overflowing-bathtub scene in The Crown? - and the episode in which WC rides the Underground to meet "the people" - whether it's based on fact or not, I'm not sure - is handled with such clumsy earnestness that it's almost painful to watch. Yes, Academy voters tend to bestow the top acting awards on those playing either historical figures or people with disabilties - but in this case it's hard to quibble: This film is Oldman's all the way.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

A totally likable if not exactly groundbreaking film: Lady Bird

Greta Gerwig's 2017 film Lady Bird, the directorial debut of this excellent actress, breaks not much new ground but still it's completely watchable, enjoyable, witty, and strangely moving at the end, graced by a terrific performance in the title foel by Saorise Ronan with backup from a strong ensemble cast. OK, so this is one of about a thousand movies about the agony and ecstasy of the last year of h.s., in this case the self-dubbed Lady Bird (birth name Christine) yearns to get out of her home city, Sacramento (also GG's home city, as seen in several of her comedies), and go to an East Coast college, which her parents, specifically her mother - played well by Laurie Metcalf, in fact she could have done a trading spaces w/ I, Tonya's Allison Janney and maybe taken that Oscar - insist they cannot afford (affable but feckless father has been laid off from his job as a programmer). So she proceeds to apply surreptitiously, w/ a little help from Dad - haven't we seen that before (was it Real Women Have Curves?)? Much of the film is about LB's life in high school, through which she follow the familiar path of moving away from her rather plain but sweet bestie and hanging w/ a new set of friends, more hip, aware, good-looking, and wealthy. Again, you can see the antecedents and the likely outcome of this narrative strand (Clueless, et al). Where they movie does break some new ground, however, is its altogether sweet and understanding portrayal of a Catholic girls' high school, in which for once the teachers and school leaders are not all monsters and fanatics: the principal is kind and helpful, the drama coach is sympathetic and engaged w/ the kids, even the woman called upon to lecture the students about the evils of abortion is at least not made out to be a fool. GG has a great sense of comic timing, and gets a lot of laughs out of a scene in which the JV football coach subs for the drama teacher - as well as from some one-liners: Dad knocks on door. LB: Dad? Come in. Dad: How did you know it was me. LB: Mom doesn't knock. She also handles some highly emotional scenes w/ great aplomb, notably a beautiful scene of mother-daughter talking about sex, filmed in reflection from the bathroom mirror, and a terrific scene of LB consoling her ex-boyfriend. Altogether, a likable if not monumental film and suggests good things about Gerwig's potential directing career, which perhaps may follow the acting-to-directing course of Sarah Polley.