Movie Round-up: Feivel Goes West, Julie & Julia, Dark Days, The Queen of Versailles, Senna

An American Tail: Fievel Goes West (Phil Nibbelink & Simon Wells, 1991): I concede my interest didn’t stray too far from the knowledge that Fievel Goes West offers the final film role of the immortal Jimmy Stewart, or that it co-stars John Cleese. But my girlfriend likes the American Tail series, namely the first and second, so here were are. And they’re not bad: Fievel Goes West is an odd amalgam of Jewish-Russian stereotypes and cowboy culture, throwing in some New York gangsters and high-society Britishisms to boot, but maybe that’s the intention of this all-American melting pot. It sort of works. Had the writers any real sense of flow, and were they able to string together the adventure story with more substantial (or at least emotional) dialogue, perhaps by focusing on any single character’s depth at all, this could’ve been a very successful film. As it stands, it is a mishmash of one-off jokes and oddball characters, brought to life by the beautifully talented voice actors and mostly endearing songs.

Julie & Julia (Nora Ephron, 2009): There’s a reason that Julie & JuliaNora Ephron‘s final film, is so rarely talked about outside the context of  Meryl Streep’s many transformational roles. But its not entirely fair. If Streep were not cast, the film would have received much less attention, but every reviewer would have highlighted Amy Adams’s adorable neurotic mannerisms, or the script’s clever and strikingly contemporary feminist context, which pits the two ever-supportive husbands in the kind of role too often reserved for supporting female actors, names billed under the manly male counterpart. It’s oddly refreshing. Apologies here, but I’m a guy, and so the husbands’ total characterlessness outside of their wives plots stuck out to me almost as much as the delicious food. On that note: Don’t watch this movie on an empty stomach.

Dark Days (Marc Singer, 2000): Dark Days is technically a documentary, but falls into that sub-category of advocacy film (The Coveetc.) that affects its subjects as much as it documents them. One-time director Marc Singer delved into New York’s cavernous underground for two years to film the breathtaking life of the city’s daring homeless who made their own home in the tunnels among the subway lines. Among the more astonishing realizations: Homeless eat way better than one might expect (one man is shocked to see his friend crack an egg to make mix into patties set on the stove; we see another actively rejecting food he doesn’t recognize, rewriting the apparently inaccurate adage that beggars can’t be choosers); their makeshift homes are so well built that they themselves are surprised when they have trouble tearing them down; and many of them, despite being recovering or current addicts, are rather articulate. What is not mentioned in the film, but changes one’s perspective on the whole thing, is that the involvement of the Coalition for the Homeless was directly instigated by Singer. He forged his own movie’s reality. Some documentary critics might call this disingenuous filmmaking, but his subjects, and certainly his film, are better off for it. By the end of the modest 80-minute runtime, I challenge a soul to not feel lucky for the house and wealth they were born into.

The Queen of Versailles (Lauren Greenfield, 2012): This film could not have been successful without the rise of reality television, which, in a way, sort of justifies reality TV’s existence. The Queen of Versailles uses many of the same shlocky tropes as the much-despised TV genre; namely, making the audience feel mentally and emotionally superior to the idiots onscreen, who are so divorced from reality, from their emotions and the world around them that, in the case of the Queen herself, trophy wife Jacqueline Siegel (whose boobs are so disgustingly huge and fake that it borders on constant distraction), she tells the director plainly that she’ll have to watch the movie to find out what’s going on in her life. The first act takes an abrupt drop when the housing bubble crash destroyed the economy, and the husband, David Siegel (for whom we feel almost pity so far, as we watch him balance his wife’s spending habits with his concept of an ideal rich-man’s life), becomes a menacing, solitary figure, alienating himself from his family with repeated scorn and detachment. Suddenly, the wife doesn’t seem like such a bad person. Though the doc would have benefited immensely from  being more plot-driven — perhaps owing to the fact that Mr. Siegel likely didn’t want them too close to his work, which is largely shrouded in complicated-sounding mystery — it’s at least an amusing trip through a hallucinated, blown-up version of the American Dream.

Senna (Asaf Kapadia, 2010): The months it must have taken to find all the footage to make Senna, the delicate 104-minute portrait of infamous Brazilian Formula 1 racer Ayrtron Senna, is daunting just to consider. What the doc develops in exhaustive stock footage, though, it lacks in narrative context; as someone who doesn’t especially care about cars, repeated unexplained details (I still don’t know exactly what a “pole position” is or how one is determined) yank one out of the story as often as the terrific scene-setting draws one in. Senna himself is a fascinating character to observe, to watch him grow from a boyishly good-looking go-kart racer to a solemn, sometimes depressed adult in competition with his devilishly clever rivals, his emotions as fragile as the cars themselves. We know how the movie ends — he famously dies in a crash at age 34 — but we never know quite how or when it will happen, which keep the last act nail-bitingly alive until the credits roll.

Movie Roundup: Attack the Gas Station!, About a Boy, Safety Last!, Argo, F For Fake

Attack the Gas Station! (Kim Sang-jin, 1999):  The plot is beyond simple: four youths find a gas station and raid it, holding its staff hostage by threatening to bonk them on the head with blunt sticks. (The film notably exists in some bizarre universe where where everyone is deathly afraid of this.) Partway through they each fall into daydreamy flashbacks of disappointment and disenchantment with authority; these kids clash with an older generation that’s anti-art and anti-music, filled with old men who bully students just to show that they can. These moments bring to light a deeper meaning behind Attack the Gas Station, and realizes the story as a warning sign to an aging Korean society that if it doesn’t start being more open-minded, its youth will rebel. Problem is, the film’s shallow exterior and often unfunny slapstick facial expressions don’t warrant more than a single cursory viewing.

About a Boy (Chris & Paul Weitz, 2002):  A pretty convincing performance by Hugh Grant as an emotionally handicapped pretty boy saves About a Boy from being an awfully contrived quasi-rom-com between a mature child and a childish man. Between this and High Fidelity, one wonders if Nick Hornby’s novels are so well adapted to films because they lack the complexity a properly packed novel should have? Or maybe they’re just easy to summarize? Either way, its final act loses throws away its emotional impact along with its once-natural dialogue, namely when its leading characters refuse to have frankly easy conversations confronting their lies and real feelings. (One wants to reach into the screen and scream at Grant: “Just explain how you met the kid! It’s obviously endearing!”) It falls under a trite emotional arc and culminates in one of the most awkward climaxes ever filmed. Not sure if that’s called “success”.

Safety Last! (Fred C. Newmayer & Sam Taylor, 1923): It is easy to see why Harold Lloyd has not withstood the test of time as much as Chaplin or Keaton; Safety Last!, his most famous film, has no deeper meaning beyond the purely extraordinary stunt of him climbing a 15-story building. But, that said, it’s a helluva scene. Somehow, nearly 90 years after the fact, watching Lloyd slowly inch his way skyward, losing his footing, balancing on ledges, still makes one cover one’s eyes in fear, as if we were still watching him in 1923. Lloyd’s flamboyantly awkward intellectual (big round glasses to later inspire Woody Allen, a three-piece suit he could barely afford) is a pleasant divergence from Chaplin’s immortal tramp or Keaton’s quiet, subdued face, which means, to answer the obvious question, no, just because you’ve seen one silent comedy does not mean you’ve seen them all.

Argo (Ben Affleck, 2012): The opening sequence promptly displays the text: “Based on a true story.” Really, Affleck should have at least italicized “Based on“; it’s unclear why Affleck needed to make this already so ridiculous story even more ridiculous. Still, with the exception of an unnaturally tidy wrap-up, Argo is a totally enjoyable thrill ride, dabbed but not drenched in political history. While the hostages’ three-month-long bottle episode in the Canadian embassy gets occasionally tiresome, viewers will probably most remember the movie’s early Hollywood contingent,  featuring the suave, Oceans Elevenesque Alarn Arkin and John Goodman giddily composing this fake movie, from nothing into dressier nothing. Affleck himself sidles into the background of every scene; he’s gotten some flak for the self-cast, but he does more nothing than harm, allowing the better actors (mustn’t forget Bryan Cranston, breaking out of Breaking Bad to join the authority’s side for a change) to carry the film’s weight.

F For Fake (Orson Welles, 1973): A tsunami of ambiguity, Welles’s last full-length movie has been called more a “film essay” than any other genre, but even that gives it a bit too much credit re: organization. It’s not sloppy, but demands an intense eye and ear from the audience if they wish to understand, well, anything at all–which you won’t, for the first 15 minutes at least; Welles concedes this in the narration, steering the film from story to story, one anecdote to a lie. Flying in the face of these narrative pirouettes is Welles himself, doing his distinctly deep-voiced Wellesian thing, bound only by his dozens of amusing costume changes. There is a moment about an hour in when Welles slows the action down to a monologue about death, which seems both startlingly out of place and the most profoundly beautiful moment in the film. Thirty minutes later, as the credits roll, I was struck by the same feeling I’d gotten after watching 2001: A Space Oddysey and Apocalypse Now: that I had no idea what’d I’d just seen, much less if I actually enjoyed watching it.

Films I Watched This Week – Page One, Tabloid, I Confess, Searching for Sugar Man, Away We Go, Shutter Island

I have a poor memory. Way too often, people ask me if  I’ve seen a movie, and I say, Sure, and they ask, What’d ya think? and I say, truthfully, that I don’t really remember.

So this is less a “One Movie Every Day For a Year” blog or a “100 Days of Cinema” phase, ’cause I could never commit to those. It’s more a Weekly Review of films I watch since I watch a lot of movies these days and don’t want to forget what I think about them, because I think what I think is worth thinking, and also maybe one day I’ll be applying for a position as culture columnist for Slate and want to prove that I know anything about anything. There will very rarely be any relationship between movies in a given week, so don’t look for one.

Page One: Inside the New York Times (Andrew Rossi, 2011): There’s a looming masturbatory danger about journalists as subjects of journalism that the media has gotta start being wary of. It’s like movies about movies, or books about books. The audience’s presumption walking in demands that the authors know their subject intimately, and loves it dearly — I mean, it’s their job — and it doesn’t work as often as it does. Page One never runs out of ideas before the end of its 90 minutes, but it doesn’t make any of them particularly engaging, either. It’s as if they read the hundreds of hard news stories published every week about the decline of newspapers and just simply compiled them, rather than dissecting them, turning dry facts into a part of the global conversation.

Tabloid (Errol Morris, 2010): I ought to disclaim this by saying that Errol Morris is one of my Top Three favourite documentarians, and Gates of Heaven is one of my Top Three favourite documentaries. So it is with willing and delightful indulgence that I watched Tabloid,  as much a triumph of storytellers as of storytelling. It’s a shame that Joyce McKinney, a former Miss Wyoming who evolved into a self-perpetuating media sensation because of her audacious and wildly self-assured personality, later sued Morris for misrepresenting her in the film — seeing as it’s her telling her own words telling her own story throughout. The movie shines brightest in juxtaposing her fairy tale version with the reality recalled by hardened, arguably scummy journalists. There’s no real good guy or gal here, but watching the story unfold is a thrilling ride nonetheless.

I Confess (Alfred Hitchcock, 1953): A lesser-known Hitchcock, starring a stone-faced and chisel-jawed Montgomery Clift (he does it better than Cary Grant, I think) as a priest falsely suspected of murder. Clift discovers within the first five minutes who the real killer is (he confesses in church, somewhat abruptly, immediately after doing the deed), and for the subsequent 85 minutes finds his morality tested and interrogated while police compile evidence against him. It’s probably one of Hitchcock’s breezier pictures, since the central dilemma — that is, whether to go against God and reveal the true murderer, or maintain the strength of one’s word but fall on the sword — doesn’t change much from those first few notes. The backstory that unfolds between Clift and romantic lead Anne Baxter is kind of fun but not nearly as compelling as the actors themselves.

Searching for Sugar Man (Malik Bendjelloul, 2012): A brilliant and frankly unbelievable debut documentary from South African Malik Bendjelluol. It opens on a few grizzly, white, near-middle-aged South African dudes in the music industry describing this magical musician: often wore sunglasses, only made two albums, goes by the surname “Rodriguez”, became one of the most influential singers in South Africa. That’s basically it. The next 90 minutes describe their search to discover this man’s identity. Top-notch storytelling, gorgeous African landscape shots and a suitably modest Bob Dylan-esque acoustic soundtrack (all Rodriguez himself), interspersed with just enough South African apartheid history for relevant social context and viewer education, firmly earn this one a spot somewhere in my Top 10 Documentaries of All Time list. 

Away We Go (Sam Mendes, 2009): Away We Go suffers from being too easily persuaded by other films. What’s that, you say? A light acoustic soundtrack? All-caps intro title cards? Disenchanted young adults who’ve woken up to find themselves cluelessly fully-adult in their 30s? None of it seems particularly original, and despite decent acting jobs by Krasinski and Rudolph (their chemistry is decent enough, and Krasinski’s scruffy-faced deadpan hits a lot of the jokes dead-on), Dave Eggers‘s script feels, predictably, more like actors reading a mildly absurd novella than a movie script. It works in the monologues, but the plot turns are predictable and the jokes even more so.

Shutter Island (Martin Scorsese, 2010): I can’t tell if the second episode in the third season of Workaholics ruined this ending for me, or if it was just obvious from the get-go, but Shutter Island felt like a long drawing-out of a predictable shaggy dog ending. It is in many ways deliberately directed — Hitchcockian angles, seemingly dated greenscreening, mysterious shots that make you do a double-take — and the ending, to its credit, made me pause the whole thing, say “Wait, what?” and recall every suspicious moment in the movie to make sure it all added up. I disagree with DiCaprio’s detractors in claiming he over-acted the role; in fact, despite the flick’s Hitchcockian influences, it calls for none of Alfred’s archetypal “blank stare” leading man qualities (see I Confess, above), but rather an almost cartoonish representation to sing in tune with the rest of the movie’s frankly silly moments. It all sorta gelled, and the movie’s final moments are ambiguous enough to warrant a post-film conversation, which is all I really ask for, anyway.