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Ansikte mot ansikte (1976)
Merciless Study of Mental Illness
"Face to Face" exists mostly as a showcase for one of Ingmar Bergman's favorite actresses, Liv Ullmann, and she gives a tour de force performance. She plays Jenny Isaakson, a psychiatrist who can't help herself when her mental illness sends her teetering over the brink into a complete emotional breakdown. The film is unrelenting, comprised of one merciless scene after another in which the camera rests in extreme closeup on Ullmann's face and captures the anguish writ large there. It's a tough watch, but it's also morbidly fascinating. I've always been interested in studies about mental illness, and "Face to Face" is one of the most realistic I've seen in showing how such an illness manifests itself.
Ullmann was nominated for an Oscar for her performance in the year that Faye Dunaway won for "Network." The Academy had a tough decision on its hands that year. And Bergman also received a nomination for Best Director.
Gone Girl (2014)
A Pot Boiler by Any Other Name....
I've decided that David Fincher as a director is only as good as his writers. All of his movies look and move the same. They're all dreary grays and browns and each one gives the impression that Fincher is striving to make The Great American Movie whether or not the subject matter warrants. It falls, then, to his writers to distinguish one of his movies from the next, and if there is any playfulness or humour in a Fincher film, it's not because he put it there.
I haven't read "Gone Girl," but since the screenplay is by the same woman who wrote the book, I trust that the film is fairly faithful both in story and tone to the story on which it is based. In that case, it's a crock of hooey masquerading as a serious work of art, a pot boiler that pretends to have something to say. Indeed, I've heard that Gillian Flynn intended for her book to be a commentary on modern marriage, to which I say, HA!
"Gone Girl" is entertaining enough while you're watching it, but the thing completely unravels as soon as you start thinking about it afterwards. It's all about plot and nothing about character. To a certain extent, Flynn has made her story critic proof, because the lead female character, played well by Rosamund Pike, is just flat-out insane, which means she doesn't have to be consistent and her motives don't have to be plausibly explained, because the explanation is "Hey, she's crazy!" Makes for a convenient narrative device but isn't especially interesting as a central character. Ben Affleck fades into the background, proving once again that he's far more interesting behind the camera than in front of it.
Don't get me wrong, I actually enjoyed "Gone Girl" for what it was but didn't give it an once more credit than it deserved. And the ratings here at IMDb at the time of this review!! The 86th best movie of all time? Give me a break. Anyone who thinks "Gone Girl" deserves to be on the list of 100 greatest movies ever made needs to see some more movies.
The Theatah, the Theatah, What Happened to the Theatah?
While watching "Birdman," the latest from Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu ("Babel," "Amores Perros," "21 Grams") I felt an admiration and respect for it that never bubbled over into emotional involvement. The acting is superb, and Inarritu chooses to film his story in what appears to be one fluid shot; there are no cuts in the film, and instead master cinematographer Emanuel Lubezki (currently the best one in the business as far as I'm concerned) sends his camera swooping around the rooms and hallways of New York's St. James Theatre, where most of the action of the film is set. So I noticed and admired the formal aspects of the film, but didn't connect with it on any meaningful level.
But as time has passed since I saw it, the film has lingered in my head and gathered a richness I didn't feel like it had when I first left the theatre. I'm still not sure it will be one of my favorite movies of the year, but I can say I really really liked it, and I certainly liked it much more than any of Inarritu's previous movies.
In "Birdman," Michael Keaton gives a just-shy-of-excellent performance as a washed up actor best known for a superhero series who's trying to prove something to himself and everyone else by mounting a Broadway play. The fiction of the play blends in with the facts of life, and the seamlessness of the actual filmmaking adds to the ambiguity of the story. I've always liked Keaton, and I'm not surprised to find that he has dramatic abilities as an actor that haven't been tapped before (or at least not frequently; he did expand his range in "Clean and Sober"). But he's still somewhat limited as an actor, and I can't help but feel that a better actor, someone like Christian Bale, say, who could lose himself so completely into a character, would have made "Birdman" overall a richer experience. After all, we're with Keaton's character almost non-stop for the entire film, so he has to be played not only by an actor who you want to be with for that much time (which Keaton is) but also who can keep you interested for the entire time (which Keaton does only partly successfully). The problem is, and this is a huge compliment to the casting director, the actors around Keaton are so good that they overwhelm him, and I found myself wanting to follow them rather than stay with Keaton. Particularly good are Edward Norton as a cocky actor, and Emma Stone as Keaton's surly daughter. Naomi Watts is always good, even if she's underused here as another member of the acting company, while Amy Ryan is excellent as usual in a couple of scenes as Keaton's ex-wife.
"Birdman" explores some interesting themes, chiefly the need in humans to feel relevant and how social media has changed the way people go about doing that; and more specifically to the entertainment industry the dynamic between Hollywood and the legitimate stage. But neither theme is as developed as I would have liked.
Still, if I don't end the year thinking that "Birdman" is one of my favorites, I will at least probably think it's one of the most original.
Sunday Bloody Sunday (1971)
Share and Share Alike
Peter Finch and Glenda Jackson play two lonely souls who are willing to share the same young man if it means staving off loneliness in this refreshingly adult relationship drama from John Schlesinger.
For a film made in the early 1970s, "Sunday Bloody Sunday" is surprisingly frank in its treatment of homosexuality, and it has a sort of hollowed out vibe that matches the social unrest that was clearly impacting Britain as much as America in 1971. Characters act primarily out of either desperation or boredom, as if seeking for actual happiness is a pointless exercise. The movie is a tad slow and a bit talky, but it is very good and gives two accomplished English actors a chance to shine.
Both Jackson and Finch were nominated for Oscars for their performances in this film, both deservedly, Finch especially so. His role is the less showy and therefore probably the more difficult, and Finch plays it perfectly. Jackson is good, but there's just something about her manner that always annoys me no matter what character she's playing, so it's tough for me to be subjective about her, though there's no denying her talent. Schlesinger was also nominated for Best Director, as was Penelope Gilliatt, a former movie critic, for her original screenplay. Oddly, the film itself, though nominated for the formidable combination of Director, Actor, Actress and Original Screenplay did not manage to snag a Best Picture nom from the Academy, and it struck out in all its nominated categories.
This is one to definitely check out.
People Are Set on Fire in Churches, and the Film Still Manages to Be Dull
Around Halloween, a writer for the "Chicago Reader" posted his favorite 5 slasher films from the 1970s/80s. I hadn't seen any of them and so decided to check out the ones I could find. The list included "Sleepaway Camp" (actually pretty good), "The Burning" (decent but not especially memorable) and "Alice, Sweet Alice."
It's a stretch to call "Alice" a slasher movie, as it's much more of a mystery thriller. It also happens to be fairly terrible, a dull movie in which I had lost all interest before it ended. The killer is revealed about 3/4 of the way through the film, and then there's a seemingly interminable amount of movie left that ties up loose ends. But the plot is a muddled mess, and who the hell cares about the loose ends anyway? I couldn't tell if this movie were meant to be taken seriously or if it was created as camp. Which is a major criticism and indicates that the filmmakers did a terrible job managing the film's tone.
For those who care, this film might be notable as the first screen appearance of Brooke Shields, who gets whacked early on by being strangled and then set on fire during a church service. And yes, even at that, the film still manages to be dull.
Express Train to Hell
In a dystopian future, Earth has become too cold to sustain life. The planet's relatively few survivors endlessly circle the globe on a self-contained train that recreates in microcosm the world they formally knew. In the front of the train are the elite, preying on the grungy masses who inhabit the slums of the train's rear. Then the grungy masses revolt.
As an allegory, "Snowpiercer" is thuddingly literal, but as a piece of visual filmmaking, it's stunning. The movie is so exciting and arousing at times (dig the scene where the revolutionaries rediscover the power of fire as both a tool and a weapon) that it's easy to overlook any narrative flaws. The production design is a marvel -- as the revolutionaries make their way toward the front, we see the train itself evolve from ghetto misery to opulence. The film struggles throughout with reconciling a tone of black satire with dogged seriousness, and this struggle becomes more pronounced as the film reaches its half-way point. Indeed, different actors seem to be acting in entirely different movies. But somehow it all works anyway, probably because there's obviously a strong directorial hand with a distinct vision.
Chris Evans plays the leader of the revolutionaries, and the screenplay takes us to some very dark places via his character, told to us though not (thankfully) shown. Evans is rather boring in the role, mostly because he's a fairly boring actor. It's a group of actors in secondary roles surrounding him that steals the show, especially Jamie Bell as his best friend and fellow freedom fighter, and Tilda Swinton, giving an off-the-charts oddball performance as the spokeswoman for the train's mysterious conductor, who rules over his self-contained world like an unseen god.
Is Christopher Nolan Ever Going to Make Another Good Movie?
OK, time for me to turn in my Christopher Nolan card.
Ever since "Memento," I've been waiting for Christopher Nolan to make another film that isn't a big hot mess, and it seems I will be waiting forever. He comes up with terrific conceits that clearly make sense to him, but he simply cannot translate them to the screen and make them intelligible to anyone else. "Interstellar" is his latest load of hooey, nearly three hours of sci-fi mumbo jumbo queasily married to a sentimental father/daughter drama. It goes on forever and includes all manner of tangents that a more concise writer or editor (anybody, please!) would have excised. Indeed, Nolan's biggest failing as a writer/director is that he can't seem to get his thoughts organized, and every movie he makes feels like a rough draft that no one ever got around to assembling into a coherent narrative. To give him credit, "Interstellar" isn't anywhere nearly as incoherent as "The Prestige" or "Inception," and it's not as leadenly humorless and self-important as "The Dark Knight," but it's just as exasperating as all of those other movies in its tendency to start with a good concept that it then buries under a heap of directorial self indulgence.
I learned a long time ago to simply stop going to see Oliver Stone or Spike Lee movies when I realized that neither was ever going to make a good movie, and I guess I now have to add Nolan to that dubious list.
One of the Best Crime Thrillers Ever Put to Screen
If Alfred Hitchcock had been Italian, he might have directed something like this.
"Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion" (which has to be one of the clunkiest titles ever created for a movie and which I have to believe is due to it's being translated) is a nail biter about a police official who murders his lover in cold blood and then practically dares his colleagues to arrive at him as a suspect. The film is an examination of authority and its abuse, and it's easy to read into it, especially given Italy's fascist history, a criticism of societies that allow themselves to turn into authoritarian police states. But the film is far from a bloodless essay. On the contrary, it's sensational, tense and darkly humorous and anchored by a tremendous performance by Gian Maria Volonte, whose blend of sexiness, menace and ultimately vulnerability is one of the most interesting characterizations I've seen in a movie for a long time.
The final moments of the film include a dream sequence that sends the film into the surreal territory of Bunuel, and I couldn't help but be a tad disappointed that it didn't have the chutzpah to make that ending the real one and not a dream. The ending as it is is fine, but the alternate one would have cemented the film's place not only as one of the best crime thrillers ever put to screen (which it certainly is) but also one of the best satires as well.
Island of Lost Souls (1932)
It's the Animal in Me
"Island of Lost Souls" shares much in common, not so much in plot as in atmosphere and weirdness factor, with another 1932 release, "Freaks." "Freaks" pushes boundaries a little harder and is therefore the more shocking of the two films all these years later, but "Island of Lost Souls" nevertheless manages to impress one with how bizarre it probably seemed to audiences at the time of its premier.
Charles Laughton commits himself fully to the role of a deranged scientist working on human/animal hybrids in the jungles of some remote island. His world and work are threatened with the accidental arrival of a newcomer who recognizes his reprehensible experiments for what they are, and an uprising of the pathetic mutant islanders results in them turning against their master. The film is brisk and focused almost exclusively on the shock factor of this morbid tale -- it does not make any attempt to get into philosophical ruminations about the morality of the scientist's actions, which is probably for the best in what amounts to a pre-Code monster movie.
I enjoyed "Island of Lost Souls" well enough but have to admit that I was the slightest bit disappointed that it wasn't more memorable.
Typical Cronenberg, Clinical and Full of Ick
"Icky" pretty much sums up this David Cronenberg freak fest about a small-time TV executive who will stop at nothing to get ratings for his obscure and grassroots network.
James Woods is the exec, and he gives a very good, very grounded performance in a movie that more often feels like a fever dream than a coherent narrative. In typical Cronenberg fashion, the film blends queasy horror with deadpan black humor to mostly good effect, which means the film always stays just this side of taking itself too seriously, a key ingredient in a story that's going to be this out there. But on the other hand, also in typical Cronenberg fashion, the film feels clinical and abstract, more about ideas than about characters or plot, which makes it difficult to become fully engaged in it.
I will say that the film is fairly prophetic in its thesis that consumers of mass media will crave stronger and stronger depravity as they become desensitized to the material available to them. It made me think of the horror movie trend, and how just the idea of a masked stalker picking off teens was a scary enough idea even if we never saw the gory results in full detail, whereas now the youth market doesn't seem to think a movie is scary enough unless we see people killed with all the grisly detail of an autopsy.