Monday, November 21, 2005

Movies 11/20

Another week - a few more films...

Walk the Line *** - solid biopic, with nice performances from Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon. That's about it, though. Could it be better? Is it possible to make a great film about a great artist? It seems to me, anything a filmmaker could say about someone like Johnny Cash has already been said, better, by Johnny Cash himself. It's that way with most great artists, isn't it? In a way, this film reminds me of Bird - it's not so much that they are alike (pther than being about great American musicians), but they both seem to make honorable attempts to get at their subjects, in a style that itself attempts to do justice to the subject. They come short, but they come short in a very admirable way. Bird's twisty, impressionistic style seems right for Charlie Parker's story; the plain, direct, concrete style of Walk the Line is right for Johnny Cash. In her review, Salon's Stephanie Zacharek notes the solidity of Cash's demons - trains, guns, fire - and the film works that way, embodying evil and redemption in real things and real sounds: saws, trains, tractors, fishing rods, guitars, pills and pill bottles, to the point of making Cash's return to the church quite literal - he returns to a building. The emotion is the same - the power in Cash's music is in its unsentimental sentimentality. Emotion - love, anger, fear, pain - is felt for real - a sad song is a sad song and you are supposed to feel sad about it. The film gives you that - gives you the heart tugging moments you're supposed to have in this kind of film, the uplift, the sorrow, gives them to you pretty close to their baseline - "God has given you a second chance" - as sentimental a line, and plot point, as you could ask, but played perfectly straight, because it is perfectly real.

Smile - ***1/2 - 1975 Michael Ritchie film about a California beauty pageant. Even more Altman-light than Bad News Bears, but light or not, it's pretty damned good on its own. Sharp and funny dialogue, an array of more or less defined characters, some great parodies of mid-sized American towns in the 70s - "want a major weenie?" In the end, bitter and sad - Bruce Dern trying to talk to some soldiers - "we held the Chosen reservoir!" - "Did you see the knockers on that one?"

Top Hat **** - I'm tempted to drag poor old Busby Berkeley back out for some theorizing and comparing. Thought of it toward the end here, during the Picolino dance number - which has, like Berkeley, a gang of dancers making patterns and traces for an overhead camera, before Fred and Ginger join in for some celebratory hoofing... Mark Sandrich and company may have picked up the large patterns of dancers Berkeley favored, but none of his style - none of the cutting in and out of the dance, none of the construction of the dance on the editing table. No - Sandrich shoots almost all of it from high above, one or two angles - dropping down only to give a better look at the dancing as a whole (or at least of a pair of legs) - and, of course, for Fred and Ginger. But comparing Top Hat to Berkeley has little point except to note where the energy of this film (and the Fred and Ginger films in general) lies - it is about the performances, about Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dancing. Berkeley's films are about the movement and colors, the patterns, etc. - the music and dancing in films like the Chevalier/MacDonald films are much more about creating character and a world - the music and dancing in Fred Astaire's films is about Fred Astaire, singing and dancing. The story (this one a paper thin series of highly contrived misunderstandings performed delightfully by the usual set of loons - Edward Everett Horton and Eric Blore and Erik Rhodes and Helen Broderick) is there to get them together to dance - and to create the sense of conflict that can be enacted and overcome through dancing... The dances, though, carry the film - they set up the conflict, show the two coming together, and, of course, give you the lgorious release they promise... Anyway. A more satisfying film, or type of film, has seldom been made... (And a word in favor of Mark Sandrich, or someone - not only does he do a fine job of allowing Fred and Ginger to put their moves across on the screen, but there are some nice little motifs run through the film - sound and silence, birds and flying... and the gorgeous art deco look of everything.)

The Squid and the Whale **** - yes, I saw it 2 weeks ago. Just checking in. Yes, it is the best film of the year.

No comments: