Sunday, June 19, 2005

Review Revue

Summer moves along and so does the watching of films. Lately, I've been watching mostly older films, mainly because I've seen almost all the recent films that I want to see. There's some foreign stuff that I still want to see, notably Takashi Miike's stuff, but I've covered most American films of the 90s and 00s. What this means is I've been going through older films, mostly stuff from the 70s. I try not to be one of these people who automatically condemns older films, but watching them, I usually don't get the emotional impact that I do from more recent films. I'm a big fan of new cinema techniques, and the sort of intense emotional cinema of people like Wong Kar-Wai and Gaspar Noe. In the 70s, art film seemed to exist largely as a reaction to the excessively emotional films of classical Hollywood, and it can sometimes seem cold. Recent films have done a good job of synthesizing the art and the emotion. What that means is that while I can respect and enjoy 70s films, I usually don't love them as much as recent films. There are exceptions, notably Kubrick's stuff, but on the whole, the point stands.

Luckily, next week New York is having an Asian Film Festival, and I'll be able to check out a couple of interesting films. I've got tickets for Seijun Suzuki's Princess Raccoon and Kim Ki-Duk's Samartian Girl. Suzuki is an eighty year old guy who made the brilliant Tokyo Drifter back in the 60s. I haven't seen any of his other films, but the trailer is really wacky and it looks like a film that'll be worth seeing. Kim Ki-Duk made The Isle, a really interesting, dark film, as well as Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter...and Spring, a pretty cool, arty film. He's a challenging filmmaker.

Lately, I've been trying to support more arty movies with my filmgoing dollar. I feel like the reason Hollywood doesn't make more intelligent movies is because people never go see them in the theater. Look at Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, by this point, virtually everyone I know has seen and loved the movie, but when it came out in the theater, the box office was anemic, while bad horror movies and mindless action stuff gets huge opening weekend grosses. So, even though Eternal is better liked and might make a lot on DVD, the studios see those opening weekend grosses and decide that those big budget films are what people want to see. So, if I can support Princess Raccoon and Samaritan Girl at the festival level, maybe it'll make it out to more theaters. I'm going to try to see Mysterious Skin while I'm in the city also, a film I've heard good things about.

More than anything else, I really would like to see contemporary Asian film getting more exposure. Why do studios insist on remaking movies instead of just challenging audiences with the original? Hero was a big success, largely because it had such a good advertising campaign and a wide release. If you give the same boost to Oldboy, you can make more money than if you do a remake.

The entire concept of remaking movies infuriates me because it completely misses the artistic point of film. A film is more than its story, every single shot and acting choice is a part of it, and a remake misses those smaller things. I'd rather see filmmakers be inspired by the challening, original work coming out Asia to make their own new films, instead of just being inspired to make bad copies of Asian films.

Anyway, some of the films I've seen recently are...

Mr. and Mrs. Smith - I saw this last week. This is a film where the press coverage brings so much baggage to the actual film, it's hard to separate the public image of the actors from the characters they're playing, which in this case actually helps the film. Obviously the two main characters are good looking people, and up through the resolution of their conflict, it's a pretty solid film. Pitt and Jolie have good chemistry and the script is light enough to keep things entertaining. However, the movie peaks about 40 minutes before the end, when the two Smiths fight and destroy their house. After that, there's a stretch of weak action scenes. The film just kept going after its character arcs were done.

One From the Heart - This is the film that Francis Ford Coppola did after Apocalypse Now. Apparently, at the time it was a notorious failure that went way over budget and essentially destroyed Coppola's dream of building a 'live cinema.' Not bringing this baggage to it, I was able to enjoy it, even though it's clearly a rather flawed film.

The most notable thing about the film is its look. The film is shot entirely on stage and it's gorgeous. The opening title sequence is probably the best part of the movie. The camera moves through the desert into Las Vegas, the sand forming abstract shapes as we snake through interesting structure. Throughout the film there's these wonderful neon lit scenes, as characters move through dreamlike environments. The lighting is very theatrical, with heavy blues and reds intruding on the scenes, most notably in the sequence Hank and the acrobat are going around the used car lot.

The film is backed by music by Tom Waits. I wasn't a huge fan of the music, but there's some good moments. The dance sequences are very 80s, as evidenced by the presence of a man in tight, neon purple tank top. But, I think the 80s has passed from dated to classic, so the sequences work.

What doesn't work about the film is the main story. We're not really given a reason to care about the main characters being together. Most of the film is spent on the couple split up, being tempted by other partners, and these other partners seem much more appropriate for them. The Raul Julia character seems much better for Frannie than Hank, and because I felt this way, the film uses its emotional drive. You have to want the characters to get back together, if you don't then it just doesn't work. But the visuals are so good, it's still a really enjoyable film. It doesn't deserve the reputation as a colossal failure.

Mean Streets - This is Martin Scorsese's first major work, and notably, his first film with Robert Deniro. Scorsese is a filmmaker whose films I usually respect more than I enjoy. I really liked The Aviator and Goodfellas, but other than that I haven't really fully enjoyed any of his other movies. Scorsese's movies usually draw on a traditional view of masculinity, this idea that characters have to be tough and emotionally closed. They're always protectors or warriors, and this film seems to establish the traditional Scorsese protagonist.

Harvey Keitel's Charlie is an up and coming mobster who has to look out for Deniro's Johnny Boy, who's something of a loose cannon, with huge debts all around town. Charlie has a lot of extistential crisis about what he's doing, but it doesn't really go anywhere. It's an enjoyable film to watch, but there's not that much of an emotional connection to the characters and that makes the ending rather underwhelming.

I feel like The Sopranos has made almost every other mob story irrelevant. What The Sopranos does is really examine the emotional motivations of its characters and bring their flaws to the surface. This film tries to do that, but you don't care about the characters enough to worry about their problems. The genius of The Sopranos is the fact that the characters are completely normal people, except for one thing, the fact that they're in the mob. The characters in Mean Streets don't feel like normal people.

No comments: