Monday, May 30, 2011

The Netflix Files: May 20-29

It's been way too long since I've added another entry to either the "what I watched this week" or "best of the month" series. However, with summer in full swing, I figured I ought to get both of these running again while I have free time. First thing's first: what I watched this week is now going under the name The Netflix Files. Now that that's out of the way, it's time to play catch up:

Solaris (1972) dir. Andrei Tarkovsky:
Often considered something of a Russian answer to 2001: A Space Odyssey, Tarkovsky's adaptation of Stainslaw Lem's sci-fi novel deserves to stand on its own. It may be set largely in space, and feature mysterious and difficult concepts, but it couldn't be any different from Kubrick's masterpiece. Solaris uses its sci-fi trappings and setting to explore memory, grief, and loss, often offering answers as challenging as the questions it poses. It can be a difficult watch based on length alone, and it probably demands a second (and third, and fourth, and fifth, etc...) viewing, but even on a first watch, it's hard to not be impressed. There are times when the pacing can grow tiresome; a lengthy sequence involving showing a car driving on the highway goes on and on without any purpose or direction. It's magnetic to watch at first, but it doesn't take long before it falls victim to too-much-of-a-good-thing syndrome. Still, I'd be hard-pressed not to label Solaris, my first venture in Tarkovsky's filmography, something of a masterpiece in its own right, as difficult as it can be.

Grade: A-

Hour of the Wolf (1968) dir. Ingmar Bergman:
Bergman, for me, is one of those beloved auteurs who oscillates between hypnotically brilliant and frustratingly obtuse, sometimes within a single film. Hour of the Wolf is one of those entries in his canon that is both. The closest that Bergman ever ventured into horror territory, it's a consistently interesting film, one that uses small details to slowly create a sense that all is not well on the island where Johan and Alma live (Max von Sydow and Liv Ullmann). As things become more overtly disturbing and surreal, the layering of symbolism throws some bumps in the road, obscuring the point(s). Von Sydow and Ullmann give committed performances as a couple facing a potentially malevolent group of wealthy neighbors, played by an ensemble of actors committed to creating a perfectly unsettling atmosphere. Like Solaris, it probably deserves a second viewing, but unlike Tarkovsky's film, Hour of the Wolf's initial impression is equally memorable, but not nearly as satisfying.

Grade: B

Orlando (1992) dir. Sally Potter:
Gender roles is the name of the game with Sally Potter's adaptation of Virginia Woolf's time traveling short story. Considered a break-out performance for Tilda Swinton, Orlando traces the 400 year life of Orlando, a young nobleman in Queen Elizabeth's (Quentin Crisp) court. Playing Orlando as both a man and a woman, Swinton's work is both mesmerizing and more vulnerable than the ice queen roles she's known for. Aiding the film, spectacularly I might add, are the art direction and costume design, which gorgeously capture four centuries worth of clothes and castles. It's a visually ravishing journey across time, filled with lush colors and intricate designs courtesy of Oscar favorite Sandy Powell. The beautiful music only adds to this quietly mesmerizing journey. Dialogue is occasionally stiff, but Swinton's compelling work and the immaculate design help lend this odd little gem some heft, creating an impressionistic look at one person experiencing both genders.

Grade: B/B+

La Ceremonie (1996) dir. Claude Chabrol:
Considered to be Chabrol's finest work from the 90s, this domestic drama-turned thriller is the sort that slowly lures you in, only to throw you for a loop with a chilling climax. Led by stellar work from Sandrine Bonnaire and Isabelle Hupert, this tale of a soft-spoken maid and her relationship with a coarse mail woman is consistently interesting. It throws details out slowly, keeping the viewer on edge. We get the sense that something more has to happen than these two women befriending each other, but it's quite hard to tell where it will go. When the film arrives at its ending, you'll likely feel the temperature drop. Chabrol's execution is so matter-of-fact, and La Ceremonie achieves its impact because of it. Coupled with a strangely poetic ending, this domestic thriller is one you won't soon forget.

Grade: A-


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