Sunday, January 18, 2009

Brief Reviews

The Lost Weekend: Billy Wilder’s famed Oscar-baiting depiction of an alcoholic writer is not as bad as you would think, but certainly not as good as you would hope. Essentially a horror movie in which the monster is a tumbler glass (any random household object becomes deeply terrifying when accompanied by a sufficiently intimidating theremin score), Wilder stumbles through the film shackled—uncharacteristically—by good taste. Still, the dialogue occasionally has a bit of kick to it, and I was amused by the modest yet unsettling surrealism of the protagonist’s DT hallucinations: a stream of blood trickling down the wall as a bat devours a mouse (cue hysterical shrieking). It’s really one of the few moments in which the film’s intimations of melodramatic social horror story come through. But the earnest, socially responsible speechifying of the ending doesn’t ring true coming from a snide misanthrope like Wilder, and besides that, who watches a Billy Wilder film because they want to learn how to empathize with the plight of their fellow man?

Ashes of Time Redux: Director Wong Kar Wai returns to his 1994 martial arts film of the same name (minus the “Redux,” of course) and comes up with a confounding but beautiful film about the agony of memory. An aura of melancholy surrounds this story of a swordsman who helps strangers solve their problems while hiding from his own, but there’s also something pleasingly perverse about a martial arts movie filmed primarily in close-up, and the confusing early section—with its talky scenes jumbled together in a fragmented chronology—only heightens this sense of disorientation. The tourists expecting wirework and visceral fight sequences will quickly be frightened away. Those who stay will be treated to some truly rapturous image-making and an elusive, but curiously engrossing, narrative tightly packed into a rather dense hour and a half.

Hancock: A soulless, high-concept cash grab in denial over its true nature, which means that we can at least admire its lack of cynicism. Still, this movie’s clumsy mishandling of its story—is it quirky action-comedy or pseudo-tragic fantasy-romance melded with blow-shit-up effects?—could easily be mistaken for innovation or cleverness when it’s actually neither. A dull movie grafted onto the body of a stupid one, and the host dies.

La Antena: An Argentine sci-fi dystopia done in a silent-film style, albeit with many, shall we say, evolutionary add-ons, the most notable of which is how the film uses words on screen as physical objects, in one case even as bullets. Esteban Sapir, the director, constructs some indelible images, but Esteban Sapir, the writer, trips him up with a bland, almost dutiful allegory about corporate media and dissent. It’s tempting to compare this film to the work of Guy Maddin, the going master of revived silent film aesthetics, but Maddin’s films are energized by his personal obsessions and humour. Sapir, on the other hand, wallows in a self-seriousness that seems oblivious to the playful and absurd visuals that abound. Listen here, Sapir: if Maddin can revel in the campy elements of his style and still be taken seriously as an artist, then you can at least pretend you’re having fun. A film best appreciated as a series of stills.

Wooden Crosses: Raymond Bernard is a largely neglected French director, but on the strength of this WWI drama from 1932, I would say he’s ripe for a revival. The film takes place almost entirely on the battlefields and in the trenches, save for a few tantalizingly brief flashbacks to the home front, creating the feeling that all of reality is a bombed-out dirt field filled with dead trees and the security of home is nothing more than a blissful, unobtainable dream. The film seems chiefly interested in evoking trench warfare, which means there isn’t really a narrative here so much as a series of incidents in which soldiers are forced to confront their own mortality. Even though the characters might seem overly familiar at first (cynical veterans, naïve recruits, all that jazz), the film defies expectations. By the time you get to the wounded corporal ranting deliriously with his dying breath against his wife’s infidelity, you start to realize you’ve entered into far stranger, more disturbing territory than your average war film. In this film, death is a lonely hell in which you call out to the living but are no longer heard because you are no longer one of them. It’s anti-war in the sense that it wants us to understand how truly terrible it is to wish such a fate upon anyone. As far as war films go, it’s an effective approach.

No comments: