Thursday, 1 January 2009

Home movie palace

Since C has had flu she has felt like watching DVDs so we sit down together and watch them. That's in between work. Here they are, our Grand Entertainments, with comments.

1. No Country For Old Men Absolutely riveting, I think, and so did C. I had seen it before on a plane heading somewhere and it grabbed me then. It is really a very dark metaphysical piece about death arising, as it were, out of the soil itself in a pretty unforgiving landscape. A very neat touch putting the worst violence right up front, since ever after we are waiting to be faced with it again and by the end we don't need to see it at all to feel it. This being Coen Brothers there is throughout a kind of dangerous droll quality. It is not just entertainment: it is a proper work of movie art, not in the pretentious sense, but through sheer power of vision. Five stars *****

2. Michael Clayton. Very superior piece of film, we thought. Another I first saw as in-flight entertainment on the way to somewhere sufficiently far to show films, but it looked better this time round. Nothing looks very good in flight. Drum-tight pace and subtly folded narrative with the main film told from a point quite late on in the story, so we have to work our way forward to it. A general low-lit crippledness to the whole suits it well. It is a finely-pitched moral dilemma. Big agrochemicals versus one crazy enlightened lawyer, mediated by Clooney's Clayton. Clooney is excellent, as is Tom Wilkinson, and so is Tilda Swinton. Growlier and quieter than a thriller like LA Confidential, not really a thriller as such, but damn authoritative. Four stars ****

3. The Orphanage. This comes heralded and garlanded but is nowhere near as good as the film with which it is compared, The Others. An orphaned woman, now grown up, returns to the long empty orphanage with her doctor husband to help other misfit children. They themselves have an adopted child with HIV. The ghosts of earlier children, her long lost childhood friends, appear. Murder, bones, staircases, darkness, lightning flashes, cellars... All the apparatus is there without any particular freshness. Everyone walks about in the dark as it is scarier that way. Husband is clearly an idiot. The whole thing felt like a clumsy set up for the sake of a few faintly arty-gothic moments. One star *

4. The Man Who Wasn't There. Coen Brothers again, 2001. It is the third time we have watched this, the first time being when it came out on big screen and I am still trying to squeeze something extra out of it. I am not sure it's there to be squeezed though. Insignifcant people find themselves doing terrible things. The banality of evil. Droll evil. Heavy on film noir devices so everything comes at you in inverted commas. The performances are very good, it is beautifully shot, the atmosphere is dark. Billy Bob Thornton mumbles and dozes his way through it, James Gandolfini is nicely unctuous and Frances McDormand, as always, is terrific. Scarlett Johansson appears as a very average schoolgirl pianist. There is nothing really wrong with it at all. It's just that I suspect the tongue is in the wrong cheek. Hmm. Three stars ***

5. The Man Who Knew Too Much, Hitchcock 1934. Now this appears fresh throughout, full of surprises. It is period, of a period roughly with the brilliant The Thirty-Nine Steps which was to follow a year later. It is not artily sophisticated like the The Man Who Wasn't There, it just goes ahead and does what it does, which is tell the story of an abduction ahead of a coming war. The characters are constantly surprising and disconcerting from the first scene onwards. Character is a wilder, freer concept here. Plot mechanics are more the issue. Leslie Banks is a proto Richard Hannay figure, Edna Best is his flirtatious, clay-pigeon shooting, liberated wife, and Peter Lorre is as transparently Peter Lorre as only Peter Lorre can be. It all feels a little too short perhaps, a little jerky, but it's a real live tidbit of genius. Not a major Hitchcock but four stars. And a bit. ****+

6. The Italian Job. The original 1969 version. Not sure why we chose to put it on. Wanted something light, facetious, fast and undemanding. I have never ever been as keen on the late 1960s post-imperial presentation of Cool Britannia as others seem to have been. Yes, it's camp and knowing and Michael Caine is a joy in the first flush of youth. Really it's a cartoon acted, if that's the word, by a bunch of lay figures, possibly including Rodney Marsh, Bobby Keetch, Charlie George and Alan Hudson. What do you mean they're not in the film? Oh yes, but there's a nice car chase. Did I mention the car chase? There is a car chase. On the whole I far prefer The Blues Brothers. I feel like a traitor saying that but it is very very true. Very well then. Two stars **


Mark Granier said...

Nice little round-up. Thanks. I agree about No country, a very powerful, dreamy film. I fell for it, despite Anthony Lane's intelligent attempt to put it in its place:

Michael Clayton I thought deserved the full five stars, brilliantly cast , with impeccable dialogue.

The Orphanage. I mostly agree, it isn't as good as The Others (I think it owes something to Del Toro's Devil's Backbone also). But I do think it is stranger and scarier than a run-of-the-mill ghost/horror movie. My main gripe was that it was such a gigantic downer, far too tragic for such a slim story, and that Casper The Fairytale-Friendly Ghost ending doesn't recover anything.

I actually went to see The Man Who Wasn't There on my second date with my wife-to-be. then I got an emergency call (a sick friend) so I, actually, wasn't there. Been meaning to rent it.

Never bothered with The Italian Job. As you imply, the (1960s) genre heist movie seems pretty dull, too cocky for its own good.
But one heist film you should see, if you haven't already, is 'Sexy Beast', a superb heist/thriller/Brit gangster movie that is also an amazing character study with (possibly) Ben Kingsley's best ever performance.

Happy newish year.

George S said...

I'll look up the New Yorker review, Mark. Thanks for the tip. No Country for Old Men struck me as distinctly better the second time I saw it (that is discounting the in-flight disadvantage of the first time). A very good sign generally. I doubt anyone will talk me out of it for now.

You're probably right about Michael Clayton. The difference, I felt, was that No Country was a genuinely original and insistent vision, whereas Michael Clayton was primarily a damn good genre film. (I followed the discussion over at puthwuth's on minor poetry with interest, having a considerable liking for work generally considered minor and 'genre' somehow, unfortunately, and possibly wrongly, seems to imply minor...)

I am a great Coen Brothers fan and maybe I am being a bit harsh on The Man Who Wasn't There. The Coens are always up to something substantial. I just felt it was a bit mannered and weighed down by its programme. Well worth seeing. Beautifully photographed and acted with some wonderful set pieces, especially the barber's shop.

I agree on Sexy Beast. That is a proper mature film. Hard to compare with The Italian Job though because that has no such intentions. I wonder what it would be like going back to the 'cool' films of the 60s like 'The Knack' and 'The Collector'. I might try it. The Italian Job, in fact, concentrates some of the worst things in the UK psyche. It's like something compiled by fans ringing in to 606 on Radio 5 after a match day. I sometimes listen to that with a horrified fascination.

George S said...

ps Forgot to mention The Orphanage. No, you are right, it is not a run-of-the-mill ghost film, but I hate films that have, as Keats put it in another context, a palpable design on the viewer. This was wearing designer accessories from the word go. I didn't believe any of it.

The Contentious Centrist said...

I saw NCFOM and then read the novel. The reading was a bit of a slog, but eventually I made it. (One of the difficulties had to do with the author's aversion to punctuation in dialogues, another, due to the heavy Southern jargon used by the characters, when they speak or think). I thought the movie really took the novel and transformed it into a masterpiece. The Coens did what Antoine Berman called "mythical translation", they succeeded in taking the kernels in the novel to a whole new level of meaning.

The movie made me think of Bergman's "The Seventh Seal", where the angel of death is playing chess with a knight. Chigurh I thought worked on two levels: he was both a psychopath as well as playing the role of the angel of death. He had a philosophy to his killing, and the flipping of the coin had the same function as the chess game. Except that nobody escaped Chigurh while Bergman's knight managed to trick Death away from the family of actors. Maybe because in NCFOM there were no innocents whose sole aim in life is to make other happy...

I tried to find out the meaning or origin of the name "Chigurh" but couldn't find any information. It seems not to be a real name. And if the author invented it, I wonder what he meant by it.

George S said...

I love Bergman, Noga, but, of all his films, it is The Seventh Seal I now find it hardest to watch. I have a number of favourites. Fanny and Alexander seems to me one of the greatest films ever made, and Wild Strawberries is rather marvellous too.

I had not read the Cormac McCarthy. Odd, as we seem to be Friends on Facebook. Someone else's idea though he had to have agreed. He must have looked at me and thought: Well, at least he is not mad and is unlikely to bother me. That seems to be as good a working definition of friendship according to Facebook as I can come up with at the drop of any number of hats.

Incidentally, I'm currently reading Martin Amis's 'The Second Plane'. I might try to say something about it here once I have finished. He pretty well sums up what I myself generally feel and - probably - think. Though I haven't got round to proper thinking on it yet.

Mark Granier said...

"I hate films that have, as Keats put it in another context, a palpable design on the viewer."

Oh yes, and poems of that persuasion are even worse, far worse.

Regarding designer/designing films, the one that really jumped out at me was the peculiar case of 'Funny Games', a 'cult' 1997 film by the Austrian Michael Haneke, recently remade in English (for some mystifying reason) by the same director. The film felt to me like a thoroughly boring, earnestly sadistic lecture. The director even intrudes at one point (impersonally, through the actions of his characters) to make a godlike but very adolescent joke concerning a TV remote.

The film seems to be proclaiming 'So you expected to see another dumb thriller, did you? Well, I am going to show you how boring sociopaths really are and how numbing it is to watch a family get humiliated and killed one by one. So there!'As if we couldn't guess.

The odd thing is, his 2005 film Caché (Hidden) is one of the best films I have seen in a very long time. Both films have similar subversive intentions, playing with the expectations of both their characters and the audience, and I suppose that both might be said to be 'political'. But there is a world of difference between them. 'Hidden' is as rigorous as a great Hitchcock, but subtler, with a larger moral dimension. It does have at least one godlike trick up its sleeve (and one perfectly judged moment of queasy violence), but that's okay, since the film/acting/cinematography/editing etc. is just beautiful. 'Funny Games', which is neither funny nor sporting (that absence being part of the joke) is subtle as a lump-hammer.

Mark Granier said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mark Granier said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mark Granier said...

I loved The Seventh Seal and Fanny and Alexander. 'Virgin Spring' might be one of the most perfect and haunting of Bergman's films, but I haven't seen it in half a lifetime. Scenes have stayed with me though: as quietly nightmarish and powerful as 'Night of the Hunter'.