Thursday, January 24, 2008

I'm Not There (Todd Haynes, 2007)

***½
USA



In gravely simplistic terms: Marcus Carl Franklin is plucky pre-teen Dylan; Ben Whishaw is early 20s art-wank Dylan; Heath Ledger is womanising matinee idol Dylan; Cate Blanchett is mid-life-crisis-filtered-through-Fellini's-8½ Dylan; Christian Bale is solemn, tortured, born-again Dylan; and Richard Gere may or may not be aging, increasingly benign outlaw Dylan.

It's a tricky conceit - too murky and underdeveloped to be branded a success but too much of a blast to be dismissed as a failure. Even the sections that don't really work - which is most of them - are absorbing.

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Juno (Jason Reitman, 2007)

***½
USA



A cutesy-quirky, aggressively self-satisfied then aggressively heartwarming indie elevated to the realm of the bearable and even genuinely affecting, mostly by an ensemble of exceedingly clever, committed actors. Ellen Page plays the caustic but inwardly fragile teen impregnated by a dork and deciding to donate her bundle to a yuppie couple with half-hidden issues.

There are blips - more, distorting oversights and misjudgments - both in the writing and direction: no one - and certainly not a 16-year-old - says things like "You're acting shockingly cavalier!"; no one's been put off abortion by 20 seconds' worth of clicking pens etc. The soundtrack is stuffed with lite-indie chick-rock, and several costuming and set design choices feel transported from a Wes Anderson movie onto a habitat that is unnatural to them.

But the quirks which are jarring to begin with are pushed to the background in the second act and appear to have faded entirely by the third. Most of what's implausible about the plotting is gotten out of the way early, so that the situations and conversations start feeling more and more organic.

Even in the earlier, sketchier sections however, Page demonstrates an uncanny gift for selling unspeakable dialogue as her own words and building from mostly snarky scraps a sensitive, human-like portrait of a scarred, guarded premature adult. And the supporting actors are wonderfully subdued.

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Road to Life (Nikolai Ekk, 1931)

****
USSR



An influential and once-exalted early Russian sound film (the first, in fact) celebrating a commune's effort to reform a rabble of teen hooligans into productive citizens. On a formal level at least, it's consistently startling.

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The White Sheik (Federico Fellini, 1952)

***
Italy



Federico Fellini's first solo directorial effort was this gentle satire about country newlyweds at peril in the big city, with zealously gesticulating Leopoldo Trieste as the husband and hazy Brunella Bovo as the wife. It's pleasant, if arbitrary and drawn-out, for the most part, with the occasional flavourful section that hints at Fellini's future mastery of atmosphere.

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R.I.P. Heath Ledger (1979-2008)

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Dark Habits (Pedro Almodóvar, 1983)

***
Spain



A schizophrenic, gravely disturbed and thoroughly straight-faced farce about a nightclub singer hiding out in an under-funded convent, where the nuns show perfectly earnest compulsions towards cocaine, acid, lesbianism, masturbation, self-harm, bodice-rippers and jungle animals. The movie is unfocused and overlong, but even in his early days Almodóvar could elevate camp to moments of exaltation.

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I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (Mervyn LeRoy, 1932)

****
USA



A hysterical and uncannily gripping exposé of the injustices of the then-contemporary judicial and prison systems, with a down-and-out Paul Muni inadvertently getting involved in a stick-up and sent to the chain gang. He is mangled by demonic prison wardens until he escapes, reforms and gets stuck in another kind of prison, with a shrill, nymphomaniac harpy blackmailing him into marriage.

Although socially conscious, the sermonising gets heavy-handed and more than a tad exploitative. But whatever compulsion or catharsis is involved in watching a sympathetic, upstanding man's fortunes veer from worse to agonising, this movie gets it. And it ends on a famously haunting note.

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Kuhle Wampe (Slatan Dudow, 1932)

****
Germany



Although Brecht was involved in Pabst's 1931 adaptation of The Threepenny Opera, he later renounced the film. He had much tighter control over this agitprop exposé of Berlin working class life during the Depression, and he therefore took greater pride in it. It's a superior film to Pabst's in any case, borrowing some effective techniques from the Russians as well as developing a sophisticated visual style of its own - the images are not only starkly, eerily beautiful, they carry a newsreel immediacy that is evocative of the period.

The title refers to a camp for the dispossessed, where the profoundly unfortunate family of the heroine ends up, countering their squalor through communal drinking and a rabid fixation on tidiness. Even if the call to revolution that drives the picture is unambiguously intended to serve left-wing ideals, it's inevitable that its portrait of a disenfranchised youth bent on political upheaval is viewed in the context of the rising Nazism that put Hitler in power nine months after the premiere.

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The Brothers Karamazov (Richard Brooks, 1958)

**½
USA

A valiant, though predictably stolid attempt at compressing Dostoyevski's novel into a Technicolor prestige picture. The actors are made to say things like "You are like Russia itself. Too strong. Too excitable."

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The Last Stage (Wanda Jakubowska, 1948)

***½
Poland



Shortly after liberation, Auschwitz survivor Wanda Jakubowska returned to the actual camp to recount her experiences in a stark, searing semi-documentary style that has a lot in common with the neo-realists. The scenes showing the heartless Nazis behind closed doors are awkwardly caricaturish in contrast to the immediacy of the prisoners' plight. But sixty years and countless generic, borderline-exploitative Holocaust melodramas later, the film's impact hasn't been diluted.

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