Monday, August 15, 2005

Movies Recapped

I think this feature is starting to evolve: more than a list, though still not quite real reviews - something between. The weather has had a definite effect on this post - the rotten heat all last week kept me from doing much of anything, not even making the terrible effort to switch from cable to the DVD player.... And then yesterday, thunder and lightning knocked out internet access for most of the evening. But that takes away any excuse for not writing up blurbs - so...

One more thing: I am putting stars on these things for convenience, for shorthand, for comparison - but I hate the 0-4 rankings people like Ebert use. That's too narrow a range. I'd rather ignore all the bottom end and stretch the top end. You know - like GPA! 2.0 is passing! (So's 1.0, in some contexts - outside your major, in most places, I think.) So - ** is a passing grade: that's a film worth seeing, without a lot of reservations - though not great. *** is very good, if not great; **** is reserved for the best.... (we've also got ***** for all time greats, one of which turns up in this post!)

So then: last week's movies:

Grizzly Man *** - the story of Timothy Treadwell, a failed actor turned grizzly bear enthusiast who got himself and his girlfriend eaten in 2003 - he had shot video footage in the Alaskan wilderness for five years, and it fell to Werner Herzog to make a film out of this footage. That is a wise choice. Herzog, in his documentaries, often seems to play the voice of reason, a role he may not play as director of fiction - he is able to examine Treadwell, what he did wrong, what he did right what he was like - to show Treadwell's personality, his beliefs, as well as Herzog's own ideas. Both men tend to project their desires onto nature - Treadwell idealizing bears and animals and the wilderness, to the point of incomprehension when he finds evidence of nature's cruelty; but Herzog's response, that nature is all cruelty, murder, chaos, is equally distorting. Just the fact that Treadwell spent 13 summers living very close to grizzly bears (and was eaten when he changed his routine) tells you something - as does his footage, showing himself living very well with bears, foxes - and foxes with bears as well - shows that nature contains both, harmony and mayhem....

It's that kind of film - it tempts you to philosophize about what it means - the film, Treadwell's life, his death, Herzog's career... I will leave instead with the note about plot: this film exists, in any form, because of Treadwell's death. It's the "grandma on the swing" rule from funniest home videos - granny on the swing is just cute video - but granny falls off the swing, it becomes a story. Which, itself, is a pure example of the Formalist rule about "making strange" - the strange, resisting element - the death of Treadwell (or a junkie rock star, coming up in Last Days) - catches our attention - and draws our attention to the rest of the material, to the everyday. Gus Van Sant has made three films in a row that exploit this device - the presence of death makes them into stories, but in doing so, gives the mundane, everydayness of the rest of the films weight. The strange element makes everything strange - makes you notice. Now, Treadwell's footage is gripping enough (I mean, he was petting wild grizzly bears, the idiot!), but his death allowed this film to be made - turned nature video into a meditation on the human soul. Really.

The Aristocrats - **1/2 - Documentary about a joke. The joke goes - a man walks into a talent agency and says, I got a great act for you; the talent agent says, what's the act? The man describes it - a string of obscenity and filth - the agent is shocked - my god, he says, what do you call that act? The aristocrats! The kick is the middle part - describing the act. How bad can you get? The film shows a swarm of comics telling the joke, talking about the joke, or other jokes, or just jokes... it's hilarious at times - it also tends to drag at times. Comedy depends on surprise, and to get a surprise out of this old a joke takes a sure touch. The best versions do that - surprise you, or succeed in the details of the scatology (George Carlin's bits about corn, and peanuts, say, make his version of the joke). The worst just list off atrocities and say fuck and suck a lot.

Last Days - **** - Gus Van Sant follows a junkie rock star around his big crumbling manse. Not much happens - there's a quartet of twits hanging around, misbehaving and annoying the star... Mormons come by, a yellow pages representative, Kim Gordon, Ricky Jay in a great turn as a talkative PI.... That's about all. As with Elephant, the knowledge of how it will end focuses your attention on what is happening - which is mostly banal, but given great gravity, because it is Life, and we know that what is coming is Death - and everything suddenly becomes precious. Macaroni and cheese, sour milk, feedback all play their roles. Another marvelous film.

Love Me Tonight - ***** - Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald, directed by Rouben Mamoulian, music by Rogers and Hart. This is very close to the perfect musical - the perfect fairy-tale musical anyway (though it's also anticipating many of the devices of the "folk tale" musical [blame Rick Altman] - making music out of everyday sounds, singing out of talking, dancing out of walking, passalong songs, and so on). MC is a tailor who tries to collect from a deadbeat Vicomte, who passes him off as a baron, to buy time... while MC woos MacDonald, a widowed princess... Class contends with charm, and everything works out in the end - she gets her Prince Charming, who wasn't a prince, but he was charming... A beautiful and completely delightful movie.

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