Saturday, August 30, 2008

"You're a Big Boy Now" (1966, Dir: Francis Ford Coppola)

I have a theory that if "You're a Big Boy Now" was filmed without dialogue - basically a silent film with a music soundtrack - it would work a lot better. The writing in this film is really clunky and the attempts at farce fail on all counts, but there's a joy in color and music that isn't present in the ponderous and stilted machismo of the overlong, overjuiced, overpraised The Godfather.

The film itself is a curious pastiche of different concepts and visual flourishes - Coppola seems to throw ideas at the film like darts, but he never commits to any of them. The plot seems to be just a backdrop for Coppola's messy, Pollockian style of direction. It is clear that this was a student film - you sense the eagerness and the excitement of a neophyte in the art of filmmaking - but the amateurishness is clear.

Peter Kastner projects a kind of bucksome ineffectuality in the lead, but there are some funny performances in supporting roles - Elizabeth Hartman is very foxy as Barbara, Tony Bill is quite good as Bernard's smooth-talking co-worker, Julie Harris is funny in an odd casting choice, and a po-faced Rip Torn is very funny. Less successful are Karen Black, whose sweetness is a bit bland, and Geraldine Page, who provides a broad, tic-filled comic archetype with no focus or real verve.

Special mention must go to the excellent costumes and sets - I especially loved Barbara's kitchen adorned with Mucha prints and clown figurines.

Friday, August 29, 2008

"Hawaii" (1966, Dir: George Roy Hill)

I had more fun with "Hawaii" than I thought I would. The film is so ridiculous at times that you can't help but laugh at it - the first hour is utterly weird and wacky in the most awkward way possible, provided lots of uneasy chuckles. I don't know how much of this humor was intentional, however, and the idea that the filmmakers may have been being absolutely serious really frightens me.

The next two hours drag interminably. The direction doesn't engage and the writing is too blunt in its approach - Malama is supposed to be a symbol of the "innate goodness" of the Hawaiian culture pre-conversion, but her role is completely corny. The role of Jerusha is the best one, as it provides Julie Andrews with a real chance to add shading to the character, which she does. She's not great, but it's one of the best performances in the film.

Max von Sydow is OTT in the worst ways possible here. His character is so repulsive that it makes the end-of-film turnaround completely ridiculous both in its execution and its expectations of the audience (compare it to the loathsomely sanctimonious ending of "Breaking the Waves", one of my least favorite films ever). He doesn't play the "good" Hale as the "bad" Hale changed, he plays him as a completely different character. It needed to be shown that "bad" Hale had the "good" Hale in him all along, and von Sydow's performance isn't sharp enough to maneuver the character's intents, purposes and turmoils with grace. His performance is overwrought enough to provide us with some cheap laughs, but it's disappointing acting considering it came from such a great actor.

Richard Harris is dashing and charismatic, but his role is just as noxious as von Sydow's. Jocelyn LaGarde gives a remarkable, earthy charisma to her character, but her story arc is played for laughs when it shouldn't have been. Manu Tupou and Lou Antonio are quite good in small roles.

The scenery is nice, but the story is horribly botched. Only watch this as a curio, or just watch the first hour for some laughs at the film's expense.

Monday, August 25, 2008

"Pierrot le Fou" (1965, Dir: Jean-Luc Godard)


Gosh, this film is intense in the most surprising of ways. I'm angry at myself that I didn't look into the Godard oeuvre sooner, because now I'm going to have to see all his films!

I always find it interesting to see foreign films of the 1950s and 1960s and see how far ahead they were, thematically, than American films. Especially in the 60s, sex and violence in foreign films (especially mainland European films) were treated with a remarkable candor that today's American films are still too sheepish to try. I wonder if a film like "Pierrot le Fou" could have been made, and taken seriously, in the 2000s. I doubt it.

Godard shows a remarkable mastery of color, music and editing. The visual sense is amazing - the cuts are absurd but never superfluous. Here, Godard creates a world where surrealism feels entirely natural.

This is the only film I know of where the progression of the film is handed over completely to the characters. Marianne and Ferdinand know they are being watched - we, the audience, are their spying pursuers. They look at us and talk to us, and they are wary enough of our motives and trustworthiness that they will often change the story itself just to throw us off their trail. It is a revolutionary move by Godard, giving the audience complete insight but also keeping them shut out completely - and it would not have worked without his actors, Jean-Paul Belmondo and Anna Karina.

Belmondo provides a strangely affable presence with regards to his character - a man so tortured by the superficiality of the world that he feels he must flee it - figuratively speaking, he is trying to go to outer space without leaving the ground. Anna Karina's performance is a miracle of submission to role and direction - there is nothing to separate her from the character. It is an example of near-frightening immersion, made all the more impressive by the fact that her role is more an idea (of danger and possibility and opportunity) than a real woman.

If you haven't seen this yet, pick it up now! But make sure you watch it on Blu-Ray, I can't imagine seeing it any other way!

Monday, August 18, 2008

The Deer Hunter (1978, Dir: Michael Cimino)

"The Deer Hunter" is three hours long, and when you are directing a film this long you can't skim over character development. You really can't... but "The Deer Hunter" does that. The director seems more interested in maintaining a constant aura of chaos, and not just in the war scenes - the wedding scenes at the beginning are great examples of this. Coupled with the confusing segues and lack of clarity in the editing, it makes the film very hard to keep track of. Characters get lost in the mix and the actors are given very little opportunity to create three-dimensional personalities.

I think that Cimino wanted the film to be really overwhelming, so he made each scene as busy as possible. He needed to realize that the subject matter itself is overwhelming, as is evident in the comparatively restrained war sequences - in comparison to the first and final sections of the film they are positively zen - and that a better idea would have been to create a feeling of starkness and/or placidity in the Pennsylvania scenes, so as to provide a greater and more powerful contrast. The ending is hokey to the max, and was really disappointing in the way it fell back so quickly onto easy sentiment. The music is very... odd? The soundtrack really needed to be rethought.

Robert De Niro offers a very guarded performance. His role, alone out of all the others, really gives opportunity to show connection between the different characters, but he doesn't fully grab hold of it. As a result, Mike's emotions and feelings towards other characters are murky and poorly drawn. Christopher Walken is bravura, and invests his character with more soul than De Niro, but he still isn't given adequate room to explore. It could have been a phenomenal performance without the hindrance of shoddy direction and poor plotting. John Savage fares better simply because his role is very straightforward and his arc isn't skirted by the script, but his trauma is still powerful and upsetting.

"The Deer Hunter" also bothered me with its casual misogyny - all the women are portrayed as stock wife/girlfriend or mother types. Meryl Streep's role is utterly idiotic, so it would be nitpicky to complain about wasted opportunities (there really aren't any opportunities to waste), but despite her valiant efforts in this thankless part she still doesn't provide us with a real sense of Linda's motives or conflict (Nick or Mike? She doesn't seem bothered either way). Rutanya Alda gives an interesting mood and presence to her few scenes.

I think I'm being excessively negative, because "The Deer Hunter" definitely has its moments - the Vietnam War scenes are genuinely shocking and powerful, and the first Russian roulette scene is very intense. Still, the actors are neglected, the plot is dimly conceived and the symbolism is heavy-handed, so I can't give this more than a B-.

AN: 08/25/08 ~ Changed my rating to "C+".
AN: 09/05/08 ~ Changed my rating to "C"

Thursday, August 14, 2008

"Alfie" (1966, Dir: Lewis Gilbert)

I'm watching this film for the August Supporting Actress Smackdown at StinkyLulu's blog.

I hadn't seen the 2004 remake of this film with Jude Law, so I didn't really know what to expect going into it except for lothario antics from Michael Caine. I was also under the impression that it was a comedy - an impression that was quickly dispelled.

'Alfie' is actually deep, very sad and very touching. Michael Caine's Alfie is a despicable character, but the intuitive direction certainly helps you to understand him. Alfie is misogynistic, but the film isn't.

Michael Caine's performance isn't a masterpiece of variety, but he makes some interesting choices in showing us traces of repressed psychological turmoil - his reaction to the funeral procession just before the scene in the doctor's office gives us a revealing glimpse into Alfie's own thoughts and fears regarding mortality.

The supporting female cast generally play their parts well - Shelley Winters is quite funny, and Jane Asher and Julia Foster are good if not especially memorable. The real standout here is the unconventionally beautiful Vivien Merchant, who charges each smile and glance with a tangible sadness. Her pivotal scenes in Alfie's apartment are harrowing - I'm very glad she got the nomination this year. I've looked up some of her other work online, and I've moved "The Homecoming" right to the top of my Netflix queue (apparently she's fantastic in it).

Michael Caine's fourth wall-breaking banter with the audience seems clever at first, but as the film wears on it seems more and more like a superfluous tic. I wish they hadn't used it so much, but it was useful in keeping the lead character from dissolving into a one-note cad.

Techs are good all around. Direction keeps things moving along snappily and the story is nicely reined in - one scene, however - a fight in a bar - is very silly and a lot of fun but doesn't seem like it belongs in the film. The point of the film - that indulgence only leads to pain and despair - is delivered with a heavy hand but, then again, this was the era of hyperbolic film messages (this was made one year before Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, go figure). I also wish it could have been subtler with Michael Caine's casual sexism - having him refer to a woman as 'it' was a bit obvious.

Definitely worth a watch. I bought the DVD at a department store, but I don't know if I'll see it again in its entirety - Vivien Merchant is worth another look, though.