Saturday, May 16, 2015

The Last 10 Movies I Watched

Baby Face (Alfred E. Green, 1933, USA, 75 min.)
Viewed on Turner Classic Movies       First Viewing
One of the most daring “women’s pictures” from pre-code Hollywood is this entertaining Barbara Stanwyck vehicle about a woman of modest means who brazenly sleeps her way to the top (with guidance from the literature of Nietzsche!). Conventional love conquers all in the damp squib of an ending, but it’s the rest of the film’s unambiguous celebration of a woman going after what she wants that ultimately leaves an impression. B+

Chimes at Midnight (Orson Welles, 1966, Spain, 119 min.)
Viewed on Turner Classic Movies       Second Viewing
Orson Welles’ favorite of his own films is this comic tragedy focusing on the friendship and ultimate betrayal of Shakespeare’s recurring characters Falstaff (Welles) and Prince Hal (Keith Baxter). The loss of an Eden due to political and industrial progress was Welles’ most cherished theme, and this film features one of the most heartbreaking and beautiful explorations of that idea. Hal’s ultimate rejection of Falstaff leads to the best acting of Welles’ career, and is all the more powerful due to how memorably the film captures the idyllic earlier stages of their friendship. The chaotic dirtiness of the Middle Ages has rarely been captured as well as it is here, particularly during a violent mud-soaked battle sequence. A-

Clouds of Sils Maria (Olivier Assayas, 2014, France, 124 min.)
Viewed Theatrically    First Viewing
Olivier Assayas’ complex backstage drama covers a lot of the same thematic territory as Birdman (2014), but thankfully does so with far less bombast and far more grace and profundity. Juliette Binoche stars as an actress returning to the play that launched her career decades earlier, though she will now be playing the role of her previous character’s older lover. Much of the film revolves around Binoche and her personal assistant Kristen Stewart running lines from the play, and Assayas effortlessly achieves a lot of low-key surreal effects by playfully blurring the lines between the characters from the play, the characters Binoche and Stewart are playing in the movie, and the real-life Binoche and Stewart. Thankfully Assayas mostly sidesteps superficial meta effects and instead makes a fluid and witty essay about the state of popular culture. B+

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Ang Lee, 2000, Hong Kong/China, 120 min.)
Viewed on Netflix        Second Viewing
Ang Lee’s widescreen epic aspires to be nothing less than the Gone with the Wind (1939) of wuxia films, and thankfully feels emboldened rather than weighed down by its sweeping romanticism. The fight scenes are among the most exciting in the history of the genre (even if legendary choreographer Yuen Woo-Ping arguably leans a bit too heavily on wire work), but it is the lavish production design and the atypically fine cast that elevate this past usual martial arts film standards. A-

The Last Five Years (Richard LaGravenese, 2015, USA, 94 min.)
Viewed On Demand    First Viewing
Though I’ve never seen it performed live, Jason Robert Brown’s stage musical The Last Five Years clearly loses something in translation to film. The play charts the dissolution of a marriage through a skewed chronology, with hotshot novelist Jamie and struggling actress Cathy taking turns narrating the story, he starting at the hopeful beginning and she starting at the bitter end and working backwards, only meeting on stage for one duet when their timelines briefly coincide. That poignant narrative conceit is absent in the film version, where Jeremy Jordan and Anna Kendrick share screen time during virtually every musical number, with whichever partner isn’t signing usually relegated to reaction shots. Director Richard LaGravenese’s lack of stylistic flair has the benefit of allowing the viewer to focus on the fine score (and Kendrick’s very strong performance), but there’s no doubt that this is an inferior version of the material. C+

Live and Let Die (Guy Hamilton, 1973, UK, 122 min.)
Viewed on Blu-Ray     Second Viewing
Roger Moore’s first outing as James Bond marks a confident and pleasurable change in tone for the series. Whereas the sole George Lazenby Bond vehicle On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969) wavers awkwardly between being a “realistic” spy picture and a winking tribute to the Sean Connery films, Live and Let Die commits fully to outrageous camp. By the time Bond is jumping across the backs of alligators to cross a river the film may as well be set in the Austin Powers universe. The silliness may offend the portion of the fan base who take 007 too seriously, but the tone is perfectly suited to Moore’s relaxed take on the character, and it’s nice to see a Bond film that’s simply designed to be fun. A lengthy speedboat chase through a Louisiana bayou is one of the best action sequences in the whole series, and the ludicrous death of Yaphet Kotto’s character has to be seen to be believed. B

Macbeth (Orson Welles, 1948, USA, 107 min.)
Viewed on Turner Classic Movies       Second Viewing
The first of Orson Welles’ three Shakespeare films is the least celebrated, even by Welles scholars, but it is another exciting example of the director-writer-actor reinventing the rules of cinema on the fly. Welles creates a disconcerting atmosphere by turning old Western sets into expressionistic gothic landscapes, and by having his cast lip sync their dialogue to a pre-recorded track. It’s true that the performances aren’t quite up to par with Welles’ usual standards – Jeanette Nolan particularly stands out as an inadequate Lady Macbeth – but on a formal level this is totally different than (but equally as interesting as) anything he ever made. B+

The Magnificent Ambersons (Orson Welles, 1942, USA, 88 min.)
Viewed on a DVR ripped from Turner Classic Movies           Latest of Many Viewings
Orson Welles’ adaptation of Booth Tarkington’s 1918 novel was famously damaged by RKO Studios, who cut nearly half of Welles’ original edit and tacked on a ludicrous happy ending after a disastrous test screening. But even in compromised form Ambersons is Welles’ most potent evocation of a lost Eden, with his most daring manipulation of audience sympathies. Tim Holt’s protagonist is a spoiled and unlikeable rich kid, but it’s hard not to be moved by the gradual loss of his beautiful horse and buggy world as the pollution and crassness of modern industry is ushered in by kindly automobile pioneer Joseph Cotton. Few films have evoked the passage of time as gorgeously or as sadly as this one, or given such a fully fleshed view of a vanishing way of life. A

Une chambre en ville (Jacques Demy, 1982, France, 94 min.)
Viewed on Hulu Plus  First Viewing
Jacques Demy returned to the style of his most popular work The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964) with this musical melodrama. Once again all of the dialogue is sung to a non-stop musical background, though this time the story is considerably darker and incorporates everything from workers’ strikes to prostitution to suicide. The brutal material isn’t as natural a fit for the aesthetic as Cherbourg’s wistful melancholia was – though a violent domestic dispute, staged as a series of shot-reverse shots where each party is yelling directly at the camera, is a dazzling highlight – but it’s often fascinating to watch Demy push the limits of his signature aesthetic with this grim story. B

Voyage to Italy (Roberto Rossellini, 1954, Italy, 83 min.)
Viewed on Hulu Plus  First Viewing
Ingrid Bergman and George Sanders play a married couple whose relationship becomes strained when they travel to Italy to sell off a deceased relative’s villa. The shifting terrain of the country becomes a metaphorical reflection of the state of their relationship; the desolation of Pompeii, for example, provides the backdrop for their lowest point. Clearly this is a case of real-life married couple and creative partners Bergman and Roberto Rossellini working out their issues on camera, but thankfully this is a touchingly intimate look at marital challenges rather than a navel-gazing wallow in misery, and it builds to a sweet finale that feels believable even as it’s presented as a miracle. B+

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