Monday, January 31, 2011

What I watched this week: Missing entries

Even though I've been posting a lot of reviews lately, I've realized that I've been neglecting my "What I watched this week" series for quite some time now. As a make-up, here's a condensed set of reviews for my undocumented viewings from January, before I wrap up January with the "Best of the Month" post later today.

Cabaret (1972) dir. Bob Fosse
Notable for winning eight Oscars without taking home Best Picture (it lost to The Godfather), Bob Fosse's screen version of the acclaimed Broadway musical is a complex and entertaining look at the lives of outsiders during the rise of Nazism. In addition to Bob Fosse's fantastic direction and choreography, the film benefits from strong performances from Liza Minelli as the boisterous Sally Bowles and Joel Grey as the eerie, seedy MC (both performances and Fosse won Oscars). Other cast members don't fare so well (leading man Michael York is on the bland side), and the subplot involving Marissa Berenson's romance feels slight. Still, the film deserves praise for the way it tackles so many complicated subjects - namely sexuality - with depth and sophistication.

Grade: B+/A-

Hannah and Her Sisters (1986) dir. Woody Allen
One of Woody Allen's best-loved films, and deservingly so. While some of the prolific auteur's recent work often delves into tedium, Hannah works on all fronts, as both a comedy and drama. The entire ensemble is strong, especially Michael Caine and Dianne Wiest (both of whom won Oscars). And while some story strands feel a bit hurried in their resolution (Caine's affair with Barbara Hershey's character), this zippy film tackles potentially heavy subject matter with enough intelligence and lightness that it becomes engaging, lively, and wholly entertaining to watch. One of the best scenes involves the titular Hannah (and her sisters) discussing any number of problems over lunch, as the camera circles around them repeatedly. It's a work of masterful directing, shot composition, writing, and acting, that exemplifies Allen at his finest.

Grade: B+

The Vanishing (1988) dir. George Sluizer
What starts as a simple enough case of a missing person gradually becomes deeper and stranger as it progresses along. George Sluizer's slow-burning thriller features surprisingly strong characterization, especially when it comes to the kidnapper (Bernard Donnadieu). By gradually piecing together how/when/why Donnadieu's Raymond Lemorne kidnaps Saskia (Johanna ter Steege), the film becomes a surprising mix of mystery and character study. And even though it drags a bit in finally getting to the point of it all, it has an unsettling, wickedly poetic ending that more than makes up for it.

Grade: B+

The Sting (1973) dir. George Roy Hill
"Heist Film" and "Best Picture Winner" aren't the sort of terms that normally go together, but that's exactly what happened with George Roy Hill's 1973 crime film. Though it marks one of the major collaborations between Robert Redford and Paul Newman, the film's strongest performance actually comes from Robert Shaw as the duo's nemesis. An intimidating presence from his first scene, Shaw pretty much makes the movie, which is a little bit too long for its own good. Still, it's lively and fun, and has enough suspense and twists to make it worth the ride.

Grade: B

I am Love (2010) dir. Luca Guadagnino [3rd Viewing]
Heeeeere we go again. Well, they say the third time's the charm, and that's sort of what happened to me with this film. It's actually much more subtle than I gave it credit for in how it portrays Emma's (Tilda Swinton) feeling of being trapped, and some of the hidden nastiness of the Recchi's comes out. The photography and music also gelled together much better, and for much of the film I found the viewing experience quite thrilling. Unfortunately, the screenplay still has a handful of issues that hold it back. Even though Emma feels trapped, the film still doesn't quite justify her desire to run away. She doesn't hate the family she married into, and even if her husband can sometimes be a little stern, he's done nothing (in what we see or in what is implied) to make him a "bad guy." Worse, the chef Emma has an affair with isn't even remotely charismatic or alluring, which hurts the idea that Emma falls for him over his cooking (one last time: she's filthy rich and lives in Italy; great food is NOT in short supply). But nothing about the film is a bigger offender than the ludicrous ending. Now that so much of the film has improved for me, this part is even worse than before, because it ends on a hollow and unsatisfying note rather than a triumphant one. Even with the incredible choice of music, the close-ups become laughable. Worse, the fact that Emma runs away from her family (and civilized society as a whole, one could infer) right after her eldest son has died and the whole family is genuinely in mourning comes off as being in rather bad taste. As I mentioned in my review of Enter the Void, I am Love is a film that wants to be a thrilling pure cinema experience, but unfortunately falls short because it doesn't give the same attention to characters and writing as it does to its stunning aesthetics, thrilling as they can be.

**I've just realized that I can never talk or write about this movie without going on a rant. Sorry...

[Final] Grade: B-

Insomnia (2002) dir. Christopher Nolan
After watching Inception for what feels like the 10th time, I decided to go back to one of Christopher Nolan's earlier films, and found a pleasant surprise. Insomnia actually makes me wish that Nolan would (after The Dark Night Rises) take a break from the BIG stuff, and do something smaller like this or Memento. It's also, to me, proof that Nolan is a better director than he is a writer. Written by Hillary Seitz (and adapted from a 1997 Norwegian film of the same name), the screenplay is much less reliant on expository dialogue (some of which is beyond unnecessary in Inception), and has an overall better flow than the writing in some of Nolan's bigger productions. And, like most Nolan films, the standout isn't the performances, but rather the construction and execution of the story, which Nolan does a fantastic job of. And while the ending may hit something of a cliched note, this steadily paced thriller actually ranks as one of Nolan's best films.

Grade: B/B+

Richard III (1995) dir. Richard Loncraine
Though not quite as out-there in its imagery as Julie Taymor's Titus (1999), this 1930s set telling of the Bard's play benefits from engaging visuals, clever staging, and a magnificent performance from Ian McKellan. There's plenty of menace in McKellan's Richard, but he doesn't over do it, and even adds tiny little quirks of almost child-like glee to his character's scheming. Unfortunately, Annette Bening and Robert Downey Jr. don't fare as well, and their American(ish?) accents clash with Shakespeare's word play. Maggie Smith, on the other hand, completely sells her role in the limited time she's given, and a series of curses she bestows upon Richard to his face is so intense you can almost feel her voice dripping with poison. And when the film reaches its climax, it ends on a wickedly funny note, and uses its time period and location to brilliant effect, even if it results in some slightly stiff green-screen work. Not quite as visionary as Titus, but certainly striking and memorable for a number of good reasons.

Grade: B/B+

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