Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Short Take: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

The 1919 German film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is a landmark in the medium’s history, but watching it is more an exercise in satisfying curiosity than anything else. The sets and props, created by Hermann Warm in collaboration with the painters Walter Reimann and Walter Röhrig, are the main point of interest. Heavily influenced by the paintings of Marc Chagall and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, with touches that recall Edvard Munch and Pablo Picasso, their work is a striking attempt to bring the aesthetics of German Expressionism to film. And it would seem appropriate to the story, which is the fantasy of a deranged man (Friedrich Fehér) about the doctor (Werner Krauss) who has institutionalized him. The stylized, angular contortions of the sets seem an appropriate analogue to the twisted imaginings of a disturbed psyche. But while one can see how the visual design is supposed to complement the narrative, one doesn’t feel it. The plotting is tired and thin, and the director, Robert Wiene, doesn’t have the flair for suspense demonstrated by contemporaries like D. W. Griffith. But the story has had its influence, most notably with its golem character (Conrad Veidt), who has proven the model for any number of movie monsters. The ones that immediately come to mind are the various cinematic treatments of the Mummy and the Frankenstein creature. But overall, the picture illustrates how a historically important work is not necessarily a worthwhile entertainment. The screenplay is by Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer. Lil Dagover plays the damsel in distress.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Short Take: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone [Film 1]

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, the first of J. K. Rowling’s phenomenally successful Harry Potter novels, makes a solid transition to film. The picture is exceptionally well produced. An army of designers and craftspeople have applied their talents to the realization of the Hogwarts School for Witches and Wizards, and they’ve done themselves proud. The art direction, costuming, and special effects are outstanding. The screenwriter, Steve Kloves, does his usual graceful job. The dialogue is crisp, the individual scenes are well shaped, and the story has been nicely streamlined. The casting is also spot-on. Daniel Radcliffe is a convincing Harry Potter, the eleven-year-old boy who discovers he is a wizard. He is a bit outshone by Rupert Grint, who plays Harry's best friend Ron, and both are upstaged by Emma Watson as their other best friend, the precocious know-it-all Hermione. The supporting cast is a treasure trove of Britain’s finest actors, including Richard Harris, Maggie Smith, Alan Rickman, Ian Hart, John Hurt, John Cleese, Julie Walters, Richard Griffiths, and Fiona Shaw, with best-in-show honors going to Robbie Coltrane, who plays Hagrid, the school’s groundskeeper. The director, Chris Columbus, has done a fair job of putting it all together. He’s not up to the storytelling challenges of some sequences--the Quidditch match in particular is a jumble--but he recognizes the drama in the scenes should come from the children’s performances. He also avoids the frantic tempo that has spoiled his work in other films. The scenes are allowed to find their own pace. Columbus’ work isn’t inspired, but it’s more than adequate> He gets the film series off to a good start.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Short Take: Contagion

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

Contagion, directed by Steven Soderbergh from a script credited to Scott Z. Burns, is an ensemble disaster melodrama. But it goes out of its way to avoid the schlockiness typical of films in the genre. The story follows the progress of a worldwide pandemic. We see it strike its first victims, the efforts of scientists and government officials to contain it, and the societal upheavals that result. Soderbergh and Burns present it all with relentless logic and intelligence. And for roughly the first half, the picture is a triumph. It never goes out of its way to shock the audience. The filmmakers know the scenario is horrifying enough. They only intrude on the story to emphasize how vulnerable everyone is, and even that’s understated. The trope of portent is nothing more than hands touching things. The suspense intensifies in accord with the growth of the calamity. But the film loses its tautness in the second half. It remains absorbing, but the rigor and understatement of the storytelling start to work against its dramatic arc. The suspense hits a plateau, and the flattened tone deprives the resolution of the lift it should provide. The film ends up feeling more like a tutorial than a story. The uniformly strong cast includes Matt Damon, Laurence Fishburne, Kate Winslet, Jennifer Ehle, Marion Cotillard, Jude Law, Elliott Gould, Bryan Cranston, John Hawkes, and as the plague’s initial victim, Gwyneth Paltrow. Soderbergh, using his nom de camera Peter Andrews, provided the outstanding cinematography. Stephen Mirrione is responsible for the equally superb editing, and Cliff Martinez contributed the terrific electronic score.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Short Take: Beginners

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

The great Christopher Plummer is an elegant, amiable presence in writer-director Mike Mills’ Beginners. He plays an elderly gay man who comes out after his wife’s death, and the character is determined to make the most of life in the time he has left. Plummer glides through his scenes, hitting just the right notes, and his beaming, impish smile stays with one long after the credits roll. The film could use a lot more of him. Plummer appears entirely in flashbacks. The actual story is about the character’s son (Ewan McGregor), and his efforts to put his father’s death behind him. Key to this is his budding relationship with a pretty actress (Mélanie Laurent) who has father issues of her own. The romance is the story’s centerpiece, but it’s a glum one. As soon as the couple seems to lighten up and show some playfulness, the angst wells up again. The film is oppressively earnest, and shallow to boot. Mills tries to conceal the lack of depth with storytelling gimmicks: extensive flashbacks, jump cuts within scenes, and single-image montages narrated with trite philosophizing. He even includes gaudy absurdist touches, such as the subtitled fantasy conversations with a pet dog. All he manages is to highlight the dullness of the main story. Whenever the film cuts back to Plummer, one breathes a sigh of relief. Overall, the picture is a dreary, forgettable effort.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Short Take: Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets [Book 2], J. K. Rowling

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

Taken strictly as an adventure story, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, the second book in J. K. Rowling’s phenomenally successful series, doesn’t always compare well to its predecessor, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.. The plotting is more reliant on deus ex machina elements, and the structure, particularly in the climactic sections, is too similar to the first book. But this book cuts deeper, and many may enjoy it more. Rowling builds on her satire of boarding schools and their cliques by extending it into an examination of aristocratic prejudice towards commoners. It was present in the first book, with the full-blooded witches and wizards the aristocracy and the mixed-blood and human-born the commoners, but there Rowling only touched on it. She explores it thoroughly here, with particular emphasis on aristocratic resentments in an egalitarian/meritocratic structure. The bigotry largely defines the snobbish Draco Malfoy, Harry Potter’s nemesis among the other students, and it finds expression in all sorts of repugnant ways. These include assertions of status based on lineage, contempt for the inclusive-minded, and epithets like “mudblood” (a witch or wizard whose parents are both human). It’s also at the center of the adventure story: the “Chamber of Secrets” is home to a monster whose purpose is to kill all “halfbloods” and “mudbloods” in the school. There’s more at stake in this second book for the characters, and despite the plotting weaknesses, it is generally more suspenseful than the first. The book may also be more for “young adults” than children. The climactic battle with the chamber monster is quite gruesome, and an earlier scene with giant spiders may make readers of any age squirm. There’s also a bit that older readers will likely take as a masturbation reference. (It’s ultimately revealed not to be one, but the suggestion is certainly there.)

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Short Take: A Man and a Woman

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

A Man and a Woman is shallow, glib, and absolutely gorgeous. The story isn’t much. It’s about the tentative romance between a widow (Anouk Aimée) and a widower (Jean-Louis Trintignant). They are both in their thirties, and they meet at their respective children’s boarding school. Claude Lelouch, who directed, co-wrote the script, and provided the outstanding cinematography, suffuses everything with glamour. The Aimée and Trintignant characters are beautiful, charming people with dream professions: she’s a film-production script supervisor; he races cars at Le Mans and Monte Carlo. Every scene looks like the basis for what would be some of the finest slick-magazine advertising layouts ever published. One may want to bask in the characters and settings, which, like the best advertising imagery, manage to be romantic and down-to-earth simultaneously. Beyond that, the attraction of the film is Lelouch’s extraordinary cinematic showmanship. He makes extensive use of the stylistic hallmarks of peers such as Antonioni, Godard, and Truffaut--the documentary locations, the naturalistic dialogue and acting, the modernist use of technique as a content in itself, among many others--but he doesn’t employ them for dramatic or poetic effect. He uses them decoratively, and his facility and resourcefulness in this are remarkable. It is hard not to marvel at Lelouch’s elegance; he turns slickness into an art. The famous score is by Francis Lai.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Short Take: Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

Ladies and Gentleman, The Fabulous Stains, directed by Lou Adler from a script by Nancy Dowd, is the definition of a sleeper film. All but entirely shot in early 1980, and barely released to theaters a couple of years later, it found a cult audience through a handful of late-night cable-TV showings. Despite a substantial underground reputation, it didn’t receive a proper video release until 2008. Looking at the picture now, it seems an almost quintessential film of its time. A 15-year-old Diane Lane plays an orphaned Pennsylvania girl who starts a band with her younger sister (Marin Kanter) and their cousin (Laura Dern). The trio joins a low-rent tour featuring a washed-up metal act and an up-and-coming English punk group. Despite being barely able to play a note, they become a regional phenomenon. Lane’s character appears on stage as the prototypical Riot grrrl: flamboyant make-up and clothes, an even more flamboyant “skunk” hairstyle, and attitude a mile wide. Thanks to some chance television exposure, she inspires a legion of teenage girls who copy her look and persona. They eventually turn on her as just another rip-off fad. The film is far from perfect. Dowd’s script (credited to her pseudonym Rob Morton) is either truncated or undeveloped in its treatment of the trio’s rise and (particularly) their fall. The handling of the romance between Lane’s character and the punk band’s lead singer (a babyface-handsome Ray Winstone) is similarly unsatisfactory. The low budget also shows, especially with the poorly matched post-synching sound levels in the dialogue scenes. Yet the film feels remarkably true to its subject matter. It captures the anger, desperation, and go-for-broke dreaming that fired the punk movement. Diane Lane’s performance is one of the definitive movie portraits of adolescence. Winstone and Christine Lahti, who plays the Lane character’s aunt, are almost as impressive. The other members of the Winstone character’s band are played by Paul Cook and Steve Jones of The Sex Pistols and The Clash's Paul Simonon; the group's two numbers are sensational. The closing sequence, shot two years after the rest of the film, is a terrific pastiche of early-80s music video.