Wednesday, September 07, 2011

New Films Recently Viewed

Another month has passed since my last review post - annoying, but this time, it's mostly because I simply haven't seen that many new films. Partly because of all those older films I've seen in theaters - Went the Day Well, 3:10 to Yuma, The Man Who Fell to Earth, etc. - a run much more interesting than most of what was coming out new. I've also been watching a lot of DVDs - getting as much use as I can from Netflix before I change the plan.... I should write up some of those, though I admit I'm more likely to root around those films for my screen shot posts... Lately, I've been digging into Fassbinder - what with World on a Wire coming to Harvard this weekend. We'll see.

In the meanwhile - new films I've seen this past month - which is again heavy on the documentaries, but with a bit of variation, and one plain masterpiece.

The Sleeping Beauty - 11/15 - Catherine Breillat's latest, returning to fairy tales, this time to tell the story of a little girl who goes to sleep, for 100 years (to save her life) - and dreams. She passes through a series of places - a quiet house with a mother and boy, forming a little family for a while, but then, the boy discovers the Winter Queen (puberty! - Breillat is not pretending otherwise - she lays out her symbolism and has a laugh about it...) - he disappears, and the girl goes looking for him. She finds instead a strange kingdom, a train station guarded by mannequins and a dwarf station master, rules by an albino prince and princess. They befriend the girl and send her on her way with riches and sweets - she is promptly set upon by brigands, who are led by another willful little girl. They in turn send her along, this time mounted on a doe travelling to lapland, where she meets an old owman in a teepee who sends her to meet her love - and she awakens, now 16 years old, in an empty castle, where she meets a boy, who may be the descendent of her love Peter. The brigand girl turns up, also grown - as one expects from Breillat, there is sex (the girls, then the princess an the boy), and it ends with the princess pregnant in the boy's world, the modern world.... All of this is quite ravishingly beautiful, unabashedly playful (the sense of make believe is strong), witty and sweet, with an undercurrent of romance, sensuality - it's Breillat after all - but it's Breillat that feels grown up, somehow. Here, the sex is incorporated into living, part of a broader sense of what life is - a trend I think has been coming in her last 3, 4, 5 films - these days, her films don't feel so much like plain provocation. The spikiness of her stories serves a more complete view of life - she never leaves sex out of these films, or life itself - but she also takes more care not to leave out the rest of people's lives. From Une Vieille MaƮtresse on, I think she has moved up, to the first rank of directors.

Mysteries of Lisbon - 13/15 - from a novel by Carmilo Castelo Branco, a vast elaborate adaptation of a convoluted tale - stories inside of stories - starting with a teenaged orphan raised by a priest. The boy learns his story - his mother a countess held prisoner by her husband (in the present) - she escapes to tell her story - the forbidden love affair, the incipient bastard, the attempted murder, the child slated for death, the gypsy who pays off the killer... And then - the film shifts tot he count's story, how he met the boy's mother, how it all went wrong... and then, to the mysterious Brazilian who defends the countess's honor... then - the monk who cared for the dying count tells the priest (/gypsy/aristocrat/Napoleonic soldier/etc.) the story of his (the monk's) youthful love affair, that led to his (the priest's) birth.... etc. There's still quite a bit more of it - we get the Brazilian's story, the backstory of one of his lover's, a French Duchess, who happens to be the daughter of a woman loved (hopelessly) by our friend the priest (/gypsy/aristocrat/Napoleonic soldier/etc.)... the ultimate fate of the young orphan - and so on.

It was a mistake pretending to try to sketch the plot of this thing. Though don't be fooled - it's complicated, but coherent enough in fact. All those stories, growing out of one another, and winding around one another, are, in the end, a perfect delight - and Ruiz took obvious delight in unfolding them. Lovely film, full of strange details - a servant who runs in place, a woman hiding under tables, 80,000 francs that circulate quite a bit, and so on. Attempted murders and duels and suicides ending in failure, though sometimes not., and all those stories, breeding themselves like - well, like all the bastards being dropped across the generations. It is a bit of a dreamlike film - it is very like Oliveira's Doomed Love (another Carmilo Castelo Branco story), though perhaps more cinematically surreal than theatrically surreal. In place of Oliveira's static tableaux and stylized stagings, you have Ruiz's articulated spaces and levels of artifice. It's a double feature I would love to see, even if it would be 9 or 10 hours long. This is just a thrilling film.

Magic Trip - 9/15 - You might think that a film about the Merry Pranksters' 1964 cross country drive in a psychedelic painted school bus called "Further" might be a bit more surreal and strange than an adaptation of a mid-19th century Portuguese novel, but you would be wrong. This is, as it happens, an okay documentary, compiled mostly from footage shot by the pranksters themselves in 1964 - with a few additions (animations, found footage, etc.) - you get 1964 America, the world's fair, the cross country trip, Neal Cassady speeding and driving, acid and sex and psychedelia before anyone else was doing it. It's interesting enough, from a documentary perspective - the footage itself is amateur and nothing special, though Gibney and Ellwood put it together in interesting ways. The material is even less interesting. Kesey's lot are not that interesting - they act like a bunch of frat boys pretending to be 9 year olds on a long road trip - it's hard to see what the appeal is. Which isn't to say they aren't interesting at all - there is something vert odd about them, with their short hair and red and while polo shirts and their desperate antics, as if willing themselves out of the doldrums of their world. They are, as they say themselves, caught somewhere between the Beats and the hippies, with a strong dose of All American Boys thrown in - they come off, in fact, a lot like the Beach Boys - caught, themselves, somewhere in the middle between Elvis and the Beatles, very uneasy with their image and place in the culture. (And they seem to have fucked themselves up about as badly as the Beach Boys, too.) Still. There is something unconvincing about this gang - other than Kesey himself, they don't seem to have accomplished much - even he accomplished most of it before this stuff happened. It's unintentional, but there is something rather sharp in the way they are bracketed, in the film, by Ginsburg in New York (the great poet, who like him or not did the work), and the Grateful Dead in San Francisco - who, like them or not - also did the work. I mean - Ginsburg and the Dead left behind art, not just antics (as did Kesey - but not here). I can't quite get around that.

Myth of the American Sleepover - 9/15 - Another film about the Last Day of Summer - this one with sleepovers, 2 houses full of girls (older, younger), one of boys (younger), plus a college kid, who goes to Ann Arbor to find a pair of twins, one of whom may have had a crush on him. The film follows four people - college kid Scott; Rob, a younger boy who sees a girl in the supermarket and looks for her everywhere; Maggie, who flirts with boys along with her friend Beth, who looks like a refugee from Todd Solondz (or the two of them from Ghost World); and Claudia, a new girl, who goes to a sleepover and finds out her boyfriend banged the hostess - so she steals her boyfriend... All this is set somewhere near Detroit in the mid-90s, though the times are carefully elided. It is all very calm and understated, occasionally insightful, but rather bland in the end. There is nothing much to look at - it's well made, yes, but.... it strikes me that it illustrates why comedy, melodrama, action are so useful to filmmaking - jokes (or violence or whatever) focuses the story - gives it a kind of hook, something that organizes the rest of the material. The best films of this sort (like what? Dazed and Confused? Cold Water?) hang similar kinds of observational filmmaking on something else - jokes - plots - or just sheer cinematic brilliance.

And finally - Senna - 9/15 - a documentary about Ayrton Senna, Brazilian superstar Formula 1 race car driver who - Spoilers! to anyone who doesn't have access to Google - drove his car into a wall in 1994, the last Formula 1 driver to be killed on the track. (The result, it seems of either a broken steering column, or punctured tires, that caused the car to lose its grip on the track and not turn...) The film is made of archival footage - of which there is plenty, Senna being a huge star - and put together very well. I can't say there is anything special about the filmmaking, but it tells a fascinating story of a fascinating person. The film does this in a constantly engaging and interesting way - and is very edifying for that.

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