Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Chris 2010 Viewings #34-38: Tidying up. (with UPDATE!)

Hopelessly behind in the great Gen X watching/blogging challenge, I came up with an exciting way to keep myself interested in watching movies: only watching movies I really want to see and am virtually certain I will like. I know, it's crazy, right? So I've started, and only 5 films in, I have managed three great new movies, one auteurist dud, and a re-viewing of an all-time great. I will blog those soon, but first I have to clear the decks of some pre-moviepalooza viewings.

34. A Girl Cut in Two (2007, Claude Chabrol)

With Eric Rohmer recently deceased, Chabrol is almost certainly my favourite living director. I never meet anyone who agrees with me, and I understand why: Chabrol alternates masterworks and throwaways like no other great filmmaker. But each of them is unmistakeably his work; it's a flavour I like as much or more than any other, and any chance I get to taste a new one is a treat, regardless of whether it's one of his peak confections or not.

A Girl Cut in Two isn't a masterpiece, neither is it a throwaway confection, it's a solid piece of work. With Chabrol's reputation as the French Hitchcock, one might expect the title to refer to a literal murder, rather it's an unexpectedly moving metaphor for the title character that I won't spoil here. The impossibly hot Ludivine Sagnier is a perky small-town television weathergirl who finds herself torn between two suitors: a famous, married author whom she deeply loves but treats their relationship as a trifle; and a mostly worthless playboy who loves her passionately but she can only muster feelings of friendship for.

Chabrol is blessed with a marvelous trio of actors to embody this romantic triangle. Sagnier and François Berléand are fine as the girl and the author, but the real surprise is Benoît Magimel, whose character seems at first glance a ridiculous caricature, but generates considerable depth and pathos as the plot unfolds.

35-36. Little Big Man (1970, Arthur Penn) and Kramer vs. Kramer (1979, Robert Benton)

Two famous performances by Dustin Hoffman; two films that get the top rating (****) in Leonard Maltin's movie guide, my one-time bible. The former is a bit of a cult favourite, the latter an Oscar-winning juggernaut. The former is a western epic, with Hoffman playing Jack Crabbe from a young adult who's been raised by Indians, to being the only white survivor of Custer's last stand, to a 100+ year old man telling the tall tale that is his life to a journalist. The latter is a small family drama of the effects of divorce on a man and his young son, especially when his ex-wife decides she wants custody.

I much prefer Hoffman in Kramer: I'll always take his smaller, quieter performances to his brash, loud ones. I realized the bigger-than-life quality of his emoting at the various stages of Little Big Man is part of the point, but I'm always drawn to the charisma he exudes when seemingly essaying the small moments in everyday life.

Neither of these movies is a masterpiece, but as to which is better, there is no contest. Little Big Man is alternately hilarious and moving, especially the moments between Hoffman and his Indian "grandfather" Chief Dan George, who steals every scene that he's in. Every time the film settles into a nice, comfortable groove, it pulls the rug out from under you, throwing Jack into a new dilemma and environment, leaving multiple myths about the frontier days of the United States destroyed in its wake. Numerous actors (George, Faye Dunaway, Martin Balsam) make impressions in small roles, with Richard Mulligan a particular delight as the insane General Custer.

Kramer vs. Kramer, on the other hand, is a shocking movie. It's decent if unexciting for much of its running time, and it's very much Hoffman's show, running the gamut of emotions as he deals with the fallout from his divorce and his new status as single dad. Then Meryl Streep shows up again and declares that she is going to seek custody, and after 80 minutes the vs. Kramer starts to come into play. I think the movie becomes a little less special here, less time being spent on the nice little character touches that are the major plus of the first half, and more on court drama. Then the verdict comes down and everyone is sad.

But then... holy crap, how have I never been made aware over the years what a bullshit ending this movie has? I mean, everyone knows that Psycho and The Crying Game have big twists, everyone says that one instance of Hayden Chistensen yelling "Nooooooooo!" ruins Star Wars 3... how has the bullshit ending of Kramer vs. Kramer not entered the pantheon of things everyone knows about even if they haven't seen it? I mean, I don't want to ruin it, but this movie basically spends 110 minutes building up to a devastating emotional blow, and then a character says "I changed my mind! Happy birthday!" and everything's OK. In that one moment I want to revoke American Beauty's claim to the crown of worst Best Picture Oscar winner ever. But Kramer is still an OK movie, just... bullshit.

37. Oceans (2009, Jacques Perrin)

Oceans is the second entry in Disney's DisneyNature series, following Earth, last year's recycling of moments from the BBC's Planet Earth series. Oceans is an actual movie, made by the team behind Winged Migration, a film popular with people who won't seen Oceans because it's a Disney movie. The director was also the juvenile lead in my favourite film of all time, which has no bearing on the merits of Oceans, but made me happy anyway.

I'll tell you one thing that didn't make me happy, though: Oceans. Don't get me wrong, this is an impressive piece of work, filled with jawdropping imagery that not only made me wonder several times whether its incredibly imagery was faked (it wasn't), but kept my narrative-driven 6-year-old rapt for the film's entire running time.

But I saw Oceans on its second weekend, a few days after the BP leak started, on the day it first started to get major media attention. So when Pierce Brosnan's voice over spends the last 10 minutes musing about delicate ecosystems, I wanted to curl up on the floor and die. I can't imagine how I would feel if I watched it now.

So... this is a flabbergastingly well-done film. I just can't imagine watching it any time soon and not wanting to commit suicide.

38. The Wolfman (2010, Joe Johnston)

Eight years ago I was still a movie maniac. I watched roughly 7 movies a week and wrote them up. Then I saw a movie called My Big Fat Greek Wedding and it all came crashing down. I was broken. Since then I have considered it a productive movie watching year if I managed to see 20 films of my own accord.

These days I still don't watch a lot of movies, in spite of my job. I mean, here we are having this viewing-and-blogging contest and I've still only managed 38 movies in the first half of the year. That's when I'm motivated. Then I saw a movie called The Wolfman.

We have spent enough time chewing out the staff member who told us this movie is not that bad. But I will say she was wrong. It is worse. Here are the only positive things I have to say about this movie:

1) Max von Sydow shows up for a minute near the beginning.

2) There is a scene where Anthony Hopkins is walking up the stairs and Emily Blunt is coming down and they both stop halfway, on the landing and Emily Blunt asks Anthony Hopkins a question. He does not reply verbally, but by chewing an apple in a way that is pretty hilarious.

3) The Wolfman make-up is based on the makeup Oliver Reed wore in the Hammer film Curse of the Werewolf. During the climax, the bad werewolf (there are two) rips off his shirt and fights the good werewolf in front of a fireplace. I was briefly amused by the similarity to the scene in Women in Love where Oliver Reed and Alan Bates wrestle nude in front of a similar fireplace.

Now, those three "plusses" considered, the following becomes clear:

1) Max von Sydow doesn't actually do anything awesome, I was just happy to see him, so that can't really be said to be something the film did well.

2) The similarity to Women in Love was probably just my imagination searching for something to be entertained by.


3) The best thing in the entire running time of The Wolfman is SOMEONE EATING AN APPLE.

And Mike informs me that part is only in the extended director's cut. Is apple eating worth an extra 15-20 minutes of pain? It is not.

Oh, and there is CGI. Piles and piles of crappy, unconvincing CGI. I'll tell you, when a CGI werewolf is running over CGI roofs beneath a CGI sky, one thing I am not is excited. What I am is watching a cartoon, and not a good one. And this movie is not content to just use CGI in place of actual physical things. Many of the lighting "effects" are achieved by laying some CGI shadows across objects and faces. These do not look like shadows, they look like dirt on my TV.

It is a little sad that the 1941 Wolf Man has makeup that, while excellent, looks like a guy in Wolf Man makeup. It features sets that are clearly fake trees on a studio backlot. It is 70 minutes long. In spite of all this it still manages to generate actual pathos and sadness for its characters, and has a poweful air of tragic inevitability to its tale of a poor schmuck who has the bad luck to get bitten by a werewolf. The 2010 Wolf Man defies you give a rat's ass about the characters its Oscar winning cast portray and can't even manage an air of tragic inevitability in a story about a guy whose DAD IS A WEREWOLF AND TURNS HIM INTO ONE.

UPDATE: I was in a hurry to finish writing this, so I forgot two really important things about The Wolfman.

1) Mike also informs me that Max von Sydow is only in the extended director's cut as well.

2) There is a CGI bear in this movie. The bear is required to do two things: 1) walk about on all fours; 2) get agitated when the wolfman is loose in the gypsy camp. I will argue that the difference in cost between renting a circus bear to do these two basic things is negligible compared to paying some hotshot to animate one on a computer. It is also the only sane choice when you use a CGI bear as ridiculously unbelievable (and this in the context of The Wolfman!) as the one on display here. Would you like to see how to create a more believable bear than the one in this film? Here you go:

You're welcome.

But it gets worse! While searching the web for a still of this CGI bear, we discover that the Wolfman crew didn't even create this CGI bear, they lifted it from the effects of The Golden Compass, where it was a polar bear, and they made it brown. So they already knew it was a ridiculous-looking CGI bear, which invoked ridicule in the film for which it was created! They saved money, but knew that what they were using was ass! The shame of The Wolfman gets deeper every time one looks back at it.

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