Martin Teller's Movie Reviews

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The Grand Budapest Hotel

Posted by martinteller on July 25, 2014

Last night I watched The Great Beauty, one of the films that I really regretted missing in the theater.  This one even more so, and the only excuse I have is that my fiancée isn’t much of a Wes Anderson fan and I didn’t really want to go by myself.  Then she saw it on a plane and loved it.  Go figure.  But there are some intriguing differences between this and previous Anderson movies.  Some are superficial… the changing aspect ratios for different time periods, the lack of any pop songs on the soundtrack.  It’s also somewhat more “adult” than Anderson has ever gone, with some raunchy (for Anderson) sexual content, violence and more profanity than he usually puts in his scripts.  But most significantly, it’s his most purely entertaining feature, without the usual bittersweet melancholy and nostalgia that pervades his work.  Here Anderson isn’t building surrogate families or examining fractured ones, he’s just spinning a lively yarn… and one with a lot of great jokes.  It’s certainly got more laugh-out-loud moments than any Anderson film I can think of.

Still, Wes has gotta be Wes, and his distinctive style is all over the place.  The whimsical and fastidious art direction, the host of offbeat characters, the meticulous framing with actors directly addressing the camera, the literary flourishes (does any other director display such love of books?), the deadpan beats.  I can’t imagine a Wes Anderson film that doesn’t feel like a Wes Anderson film… it just wouldn’t be right.  Anderson in any other vein would feel like… I dunno, Ozu trying to do Cronenberg.

I recently sold off a bunch of movies, trying to make a little extra cash and also keep my growing collection in check.  Among these were Bottle Rocket, The Life Aquatic, Darjeeling Limited and Moonrise Kingdom.  I really wish I hadn’t, even more than I wish I hadn’t passed up the opportunity to see this on the big screen.  I had a feeling at the time that I’d seen these movies enough and I still had the Anderson films I treasured most, and besides, if I ever wanted to see them again they’d be easy enough to get a hold of (and in Moonrise Kingdom‘s case, I figured a more lavish Criterion release was forthcoming anyway).  But watching this delightful lark brought back all the affection I feel for the director, and makes me want his complete works back in my collection.  Oh well, I’ll pick them up again at the next sale.

Anderson’s movies always take me a couple of viewings to feel where they “sit” with me, but I haven’t disliked a single one yet… just loved some more than others.  On this first viewing, however, I found this one to be a marvelous bit of fun… not as emotionally resonant as others, but I appreciate the variation in tone.  Rating: Very Good (86)


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shorts by Jacques Demy

Posted by martinteller on July 25, 2014



Les horizons morts is Demy’s 1951 debut, a wordless 8-minute short about a young man (Demy himself, in a rare onscreen appearance) suffering a long dark night of the soul, tormented over a lost love.  While the film isn’t going to make you sit up and take notice, it’s pretty accomplished for a director just out of his teens.  There’s an unusual “melting” effect when the story goes into flashback, an effect I don’t think I’ve seen before.  The experimental use of sound doesn’t really work, but the music choices are solid.  A notch above your average student production.  Rating: Good (73)

Le sabotier du Val de Loire is a documentary of a week in the life of an elderly cobbler of wooden clogs living in the Loire valley with his wife and son.  It appears to be a slightly manufactured documentary, with some sequences and images that look rather staged… perhaps not as staged as Nanook of the North, but I can’t help thinking Demy did some posing of the participants.  Nonetheless, it’s artfully done, although much more of a downer than one expects from Demy.  The film is not especially concerned with the clogmaker’s craft and is more of a meditation on impending death and past regrets.  I didn’t really “enjoy” it, but it’s done well enough (there are a couple of gorgeous shots, too).  Rating: Good (72)

Ars tells the story of Jean-Marie Vianney, the 19th century pastor in the village of Ars.  Vianney practiced a very strict form of religion, including self-flagellation.  He was harsh with his parishioners, calling them out on their disinterest in the church and scolding them for participating in cabarets and dancing.  They rebelled against him, but his pious dedication won them over and they flocked to his confessional until his death.  He was later venerated.  The story is mildly interesting, and features some fine camerawork, but I didn’t care all that much.  I couldn’t tell if Demy wanted to make this film because he admired Vianney or just because he thought his life was compelling, but I just thought he was a pretty run-of-the-mill religious nutball.  I would liked some background information on how he got to be that way.  Rating: Fair (64)

La luxure, Demy’s contribution to the omnibus film The Seven Deadly Sins (which includes pieces by Godard and Chabrol), is only short in this collection that feels like proper Demy.  His segment concerns the sin of lechery.  Happy-go-lucky Jacques (Laurent Terzieff, reportedly playing a younger version of the director himself) bumps into his friend Bernard (Jean-Louis Trintignant).  The two go into a café and look over a book of Hieronymus Bosch, which prompts Bernard to relate the story of being a young boy preparing for his communion exam and conflating “lechery” and “luxury”.  The short is playful and witty with a lot of clever wordplay.  Demy’s sense of fantasy comes across with a fantastic vision of Hell, featuring men trying to eat flaming plates of food and women being burned by their furs and jewels.  With a graceful camera and a lively Legrand score, this little gem should satisfy any Demy fan.  Rating: Very Good (82)

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The Great Beauty

Posted by martinteller on July 24, 2014

In the past year, I’ve made it to the theater a lot more often than in previous years, but still there are times when I blow my chances to see something I really wanted to check out on the big screen.  I found the trailer for The Great Beauty very intriguing, heard some encouraging praise for it, and generally quite enjoyed the only other Paolo Sorrentino film I’d seen, The Consequences of Love.  But theater seats usually get uncomfortable for me after about an hour, much less 140 minutes, so I passed up the opportunity.  As usual, I regret it.  I’m lucky enough (or indulgent enough) to have a pretty sizable television in my living room so the visuals were still dazzling, but I can only imagine how breathtaking they’d be on the big screen of a movie house.  The imagery in this film is simply stunning, from one frame to the next.  The camera swoops around, trying to take in the elaborate parties and impressive architecture… but sometimes it also lingers lovingly, as when Jep (Toni Servillo) is confronted with a majestic giraffe in an open arena.

The aesthetic splendor continues with the music.  The collection of gorgeous classical music and high-energy pop (including an inventive cover of Eurythmics’ “There Must Be An Angel”) and a magnificent rendition of Robert Burns’s “My Heart’s in the Highlands” complements the images perfectly, lyrically.  I rarely acquire movie soundtracks, but this one is going in my collection.

And so is the movie itself, when I get around to buying it (perhaps during the next Barnes & Noble Criterion sale).  I found it fascinating and beautiful.  Besides the beauty contained in its sounds and visions, there is a fantastic performance by Servillo as a man searching for meaning in his empty life, but too inert and comfortable to actually give it up.  If you’ve heard anything about this film, you’ve probably heard Fellini’s name invoked.  It’s unavoidable.  It has the soul-searching of 8 1/2 but more than that it can be seen as an updated version of La dolce vita.  That’s not one of my favorites by Fellini, and I think Sorrentino approaches similar subject matter — an episodic journey through debauched, pretentious, narcissistic Roman high society — with not only a more thrilling sense of aesthetics, but also a more heartfelt sensitivity.  Fellini’s film saw only the emptiness.  Sorrentino sees the beauty that surrounds these people, who often ignore it with a jaded boredom, focusing instead on gossip, fame, and mindless time-killing activities.  “What’s wrong with being nostalgic?” asks Jep’s friend Romano (Carlo Verdone) but we see that beauty isn’t only a thing of the past… it’s all around us, if we can get our heads out of the coke-fueled conga lines long enough to appreciate it.

With a wonderful script that’s often wickedly funny, this may be a new favorite of mine.  Perhaps I was too awed by the music and visuals this time to approach it from a more critical viewpoint, but I look forward to seeing it again to see if holds up.  Rating: Great (93)


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The Stand

Posted by martinteller on July 24, 2014

Like a lot of boys, I went through a Stephen King phase.  It started around 1981, when I was 10 years old (too young to be reading horror novels? nah).  I read everything he wrote — except the non-fiction Danse Macabre and, for some reason, the first Dark Tower novel — up until the moment I began to turn on him.  I can pinpoint this moment exactly.  It was in the 1986 novel IT, when Beverly — the only girl in a group of seven youngsters battling evil — discovers what her destined contribution to the group is supposed to be.  As I recall (and it’s been 28 years, so pardon me if I’ve got this wrong), the group is lost in the sewers and Bev somehow realizes that if she has sex with all the boys, they will find their way.  First of all, ick.  And two, say what?  It didn’t make a lick of sense and was clearly just in there for pedophilic jollies.  This subterranean preteen gangbang episode really made me angry, so nonsensical and pointless.  Nonetheless, I stuck it out with King for a while longer, reading almost everything from The Tommyknockers (incredibly tedious) through Gerald’s Game (not that bad, as I recall).  And then I was done.  I looked back on his work with a few fond memories, but I had outgrown him.

Probably my favorite novel by King was The Stand.  I read the original (823 pages) and the 1990 “uncut” version (1152 pages) at least once each.  I could remember so many specifics about what happens in the book — several lines of dialogue in the miniseries were instantly familiar — but I couldn’t really remember why I liked it so much.  The first half of this miniseries gives some indication.  A post-apocalyptic scenario is nothing new, but the way King goes about it is pretty compelling.  We shift from character to character, each in a different situation.  It’s interesting to watch them cope with a crumbled civilization, trying to converge at the same spot with vague hopes of rebuilding a society.  It’s interesting enough, at least, to forgive the flaws in the production.

By the second half, however, the flaws become overwhelming.  Stephen King is terrible at adapting his own work to the screen, perhaps because he’s too precious about it.  See, for example, the utterly horrible miniseries (like this one, directed by Mick Garris) of The Shining.  It doesn’t merely pale in comparison to Kubrick’s masterful rendition, but it’s a downright awful piece of work in every way.  Faithful to the source material is not always for the best.  What this project needed was a talented screenwriter, someone with the skills to distill the massive novel into something meaningful for an audiovisual medium.

But what we got is King’s own adaptation, and it’s pretty bad.  It taints all my memories of enjoying the book.  Was the novel really this corny and clichéd?  Were the characters so relentlessly black & white?  I guess they must have been… after all, it’s a story that literally divides the population into “good” and “evil” camps.  From the moment you meet each character, it’s clear which side they’re going to end up on.  No nuance here.  Each person is good or evil, given one character trait (if they’re lucky… what the heck do we know about Ralph?) and maybe a catchphrase (“M-O-O-N, that spells crap writing”).  And then there’s the main villain Randall Flagg (Jamey Sheridan), who is simply ridiculous here.  The hair alone is enough to kill any chances of taking him seriously, but he never poses any real threat.  Talk about the banality of evil… all this guy has going for him is a couple of horribly-rendered morph effects and the ability to be mildly persuasive in your dreams.

Which brings us to the confounding plotting of this mess.  The supernatural forces that guide events are inconsistent hogwash with no sense of internal logic.  The rules feel utterly arbitrary.  By part 4 (the final 90 minutes), my fiancée and I were pausing every few minutes to rant about how absurd it all was.  It gets to a point where anything could happen for no goddamn reason and who cares anyway?  Any goodwill you might feel towards the heroes — which isn’t much, although the actors do the best they can with such lame material — is squandered as the story becomes more and more garbled and unfocused.

There are assorted other minor problems.  The onscreen titles look terrible and there are some truly laughable special effects.  King felt it necessary for some reason to give himself a role, and during the town meeting scene the camera cuts to him no less than three times… for no apparent reason.  The music is pretty cheesy, too (and Larry Underwood’s hit song is just stupid).  But really, there’s no reason to nitpick.  It fails on the most basic levels.  The story is so clumsy and lazy, the dialogue is cliché-ridden, the characters are poorly drawn.  There’s no real sense of stakes, even though we’re led to believe this is an epic conflict between good and evil.  Instead, it’s a battle between the smug and the silly.  You don’t want either of them to win.  Rating: Crap (35)


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The Match Factory Girl (rewatch)

Posted by martinteller on July 23, 2014

It had been over 5 years since my last viewing of this movie.  In my memory, it was much funnier, filled with the style of stone-faced deadpan comedy that Kaurismäki is known for.  There is humor here, especially as the tale works towards its black conclusion, but on the whole this is the Finnish director at his bleakest.  And yet, it’s not a doom and gloom sort of bleakness.  As dire as Iris’s situation is, as horribly as people treat her, there is too much affection for her — and paradoxically, too much stoic detachment as well — for it to be a “depressing” film.  I would still call it a black comedy, not because of the number of laughs but because the blackness is kept at bay.

Criterion bundles this as part of Kaurismäki’s “Proletariat Trilogy”.  The director himself would never use such lofty terms.  But it certainly is a working class story, with sympathy for the forgotten cogs in the machine.  Iris lashes out to be recognized as a relevant member of her small society, her morbid rebellion an act against society at large.  Her defiance, which starts with the simple act of buying a dress with the money she earned at her dreary factory job, is sparked by the image of a lone figure standing up against the tanks at Tiananmen Square.  Iris’s rebellion is not as grandiose, but it’s borne out of a need to be acknowledged as a human being.  Class and social standing isn’t necessarily part of the equation, but it’s clear than Aarne (the main target of her revolt) is in a position of some higher privilege.  His disregard for her is analogous to the disregard society has for its workers.  Though it’s worth noting that the lower classes aren’t all heroes… Iris gets it just as bad from her apparently unemployed stepfather.

As always, Kaurismäki traffics in an ultra-minimalism.  There is little said.  The only spoken dialogue in the first 20 minutes (of a 70-minute film) is Iris ordering a beer.  Much of the remaining dialogue is equally transactional.  The economy of the film is masterful — it tells you exactly what you need to know, and not a bit more.  Kaurismäki is more concerned about letting you occupy a space with his characters than telling you about them.  Or occupy a space without them, as in the lingering final shot… those extra seconds let us really feel the absence of Iris, and maybe hope she will reappear through the doorway.  The visuals are decidedly unfussy, but nonetheless have a striking sense of tone, with muted, drab pastels that are occasionally punctuated with flashes of color.  And, of course, there is Kati Outinen.  Outinen carries the whole weight of the film — and her dire existence — on her shoulders, and does so with a face that speaks volumes with so, so little.  Her expressions are so blank that when she does finally smile, it feels like a monumental occasion.

If the film isn’t as funny as I recalled, it is no less gripping.  Kaurismäki effortlessly draws you into his rhythms, his world of quiet desperation, with running commentary by a soundtrack of the usual rock obscurities and pointed (but charmingly cheeseball) ballads.  It was the first movie by the director that I ever saw, and seeing it again brings back the same enthusiasm to see more.  Rating: Great (93)


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Fårö dokument

Posted by martinteller on July 17, 2014

Ingmar Bergman’s hour-long made-for-TV documentary about Fårö, the small island he lived on and where he shot many of his films.  He interviews several local inhabitants, including a farmer, a fisherman, a postal employee, a school bus driver, a clergyman, a young couple and several of the children.  Fårö has a population of only about 900, and relies heavily on the port of Fårösund, across the strait on island of Gotland.  Many voice their dissatisfaction with life on Fårö, including poor roads and a reliance on a monopolistic slaughterhouse.  Most of the children envision themselves leaving the island because of the boredom, harsh winters and lack of employment opportunities.

This has been on my watchlist for a long time, having previously seen the 1979 follow-up.  Now that subtitles have finally surfaced for the 1969 film, I am equally disappointed.  As Bergman’s first documentary, there’s a certain curiosity factor, but the actual footage isn’t that gripping.  He breaks up the interviews with location shots, including an uncomfortably long segment of sheep giving birth (an earlier segment depicting a sheep being skinned and gutted is uncomfortable in its own way).  Some of the comments are interesting, but Bergman often lets his subjects ramble on with some inconsequential anecdote.  The issues facing a small, isolated community ought to be more compelling than this, but not enough of the interviews are especially enlightening.  It’s not that it’s boring material, but it’s not exactly a riveting example of local political documentary either.

As for the filmmaking, the only interesting thing about it is that some of the footage is black and white, and some is color.  There doesn’t appear to be any particular motivation for this (generally, the interviews are monochrome and the location footage is color, but not always) so I imagine it’s largely case of whatever film stock or cameras were on hand at the time.  Rating: Fair (62)


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Flicka och hyacinter (Girl With Hyacinths)

Posted by martinteller on July 17, 2014

The pianist Dagmar Brink (Eva Henning) is found dead in her apartment, having hung herself from a hook in the ceiling.  With no close friends or relatives, she bequeathed all of her belongings to her neighbors: Anders Wikmar (Ulf Palme), a writer, and his wife Britt (Birgit Tengroth).  Anders feels compelled to investigate the circumstances of her suicide.  He tries to track down everyone who knew her, starting only with a portrait found on her dresser.  In his investigation, he talks to an alcoholic artist (Anders Ek), an actress friend (Marianne Löfgren), a banker who may or may not be her father (Gösta Cederlund), a former husband (Keve Hjelm), and a womanizing musician (Karl-Arne Holmsten).  Anders believes he’s getting closer to the truth, but his wife has instincts that surpass his.

I can’t recall why I put this on my watchlist, which is always kind of an exciting feeling.  I have no idea what to expect.  As a Swedish film of the 50’s, it’s likely that I was attracted to one of the many Ingmar Bergman connections.  Anders Ek was a recurring figure in Bergman’s films, most notably as the brutish monk-turned-thief in The Seventh Seal.  Palme, Cederlund and Holmsten appeared in some of his earlier works (usually not the very good ones).  Henning was in Prison and played the lead in the very impressive Thirst.  And then there’s director Hasse Ekman.  Not only was he married to Henning at the time, he also appeared in the same two Bergman movies with her (as well as Sawdust and Tinsel a few years later).  Ekman was also a friendly rival to Bergman, and apparently for a while there some debate over which of them was Sweden’s greatest director.  Lastly, it’s worth noting that Bergman himself called this movie “an absolute masterpiece… perfect”.

While I wouldn’t call it “perfect”, it is really good.  The tone is very noir, with its deep shadows and expressive angles, nightclubs and tortured personalities, alcoholism and suicide, and exploration of postwar darkness.  It also touches on a taboo subject that I can’t name without giving away the ending, but it’s a topic that no American film of the time would touch with a 10-foot pole.  It comes as quite a surprise, and makes a perfect ending to an already intriguing picture.  The multiple-flashback structure (not only common to noir but also highly reminiscent of Citizen Kane… Welles is said to be a major influence on Ekman) is pulled off really nicely, with the fractured chronology skillfully managed so as not to become too confusing… and also beautifully tying events together.

The camerawork is graceful and thoughtful.  Just before the body is discovered, the camera — following a maid routinely going about her business — casually passes by the shadow of Dagmar’s dangling legs.  The camera doesn’t linger on it, a display of morbid nonchalance that is more shocking than a held shot would be.  Another Bergman connection: cinematographer Göran Strindberg had previously done gorgeous work on Music in Darkness, A Ship Bound for India and the aforementioned Prison (also Sjöberg’s beautiful Miss Julie).  It’s terrific photography… complemented quite well by the melancholy, jazzy score by Erland von Koch (himself a frequent Bergman collaborator in the 40’s).

The movie could perhaps use a little more cynical bite.  It touches on Sweden’s role (or non-role) in the war with brief comments by Anne-Marie Brunius (as a figure who was present the night before Dagmar’s suicide) and a speech by Hjelm where he states his admiration for the Nazis, while proclaiming himself not to be a sympathizer.  Perhaps for a Swedish audience there would have been more subtext that I can’t pick up on, but it seems like the subject is only lightly examined.  Nonetheless, it’s a compelling story that unfolds skillfully.  It seems to come to an anticlimax until the shocking (for its time, though no less effective now) last minute revelation.  The performances are all excellent, particularly in the scenes between Henning and Ek.  And there’s quite a bit of charm to the interactions between Palme and Tengroth (I would have liked at least one more scene with them together, actually).  I hope to see more by Hasse Ekman.  Rating: Very Good (88)


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Ginza Cosmetics

Posted by martinteller on July 16, 2014

Don’t feel much like writing tonight, and I don’t have a lot to say about this one anyway.  The plot concerns an aging bar hostess named Yukiko (Kinuyo Tanaka) trying to make ends meet and support her young son Haruo (Yoshihiro Nishikubo).  It’s pretty standard stuff for Naruse, and he would tackle similar subject matter much more effectively in films like Late Chrysanthemums and When a Woman Ascends the Stairs.  Here, his restraint is too suffocating and the film feels a bit flat and lifeless.  Sometimes you have to let a melodrama be melodramatic.  However, Tanaka (a regular for both Naruse and Mizoguchi) is quite good, as usual.  The most interesting thing about the movie is how flawed her character is.  She lies to her best friend Shizue (Ranko Hanai) and her willingness to put Haruo in the care of other bar employees (or more often, let him fend for himself) makes her more complex than the usual long-suffering mother who sacrifices everything for her child.

The best section of the movie comes in the third act, when Shizue asks Yukiko to look after her “true love” (Yûji Hori) for a couple of days while she tends to a client.  It’s only at this point that we get a real feel for what Yukiko has given up, the lost potential as her education and natural intelligence are wasted.  Otherwise, the film is certainly competent and even mildly engaging, but too bland to be of much interest outside of diehard Naruse fanatics.  Rating: Good (70)


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The Seventh Seal (rewatch)

Posted by martinteller on July 15, 2014

This is my fifth time watching this film.  The first time was before I started writing reviews, and in fact it was my discovery of Bergman that made me want to start recording my thoughts on the movies I saw.  The three reviews that followed were pretty goddamn light on content, and used phrases like “one of those films that speaks for itself”.  Which is really code for “I don’t wanna be the guy who just repeats what everyone else says, so why bother”.  But it’s a movie I love, it’s been in my top 100 since that first viewing.  Right now it’s in the lofty position of #21.  I owe this movie a proper review.

But something happened that makes this a very difficult review for me to write.  You see, I was showing it to my fiancée for the first time… and she was bored silly.  Visibly bored.  It’s a most uncomfortable feeling to be sharing something you love with someone you love, and that person not only doesn’t love it… she pretty much hates it.  We discussed it afterwards and although I respect her opinion, most of the things that bothered her don’t bother me.  But it did make me question my feelings about the movie.  Because truth be told, I wasn’t all that thrilled with it either.

I loved it before, though, right?  I’m not so sure.  I mean, there’s a lot of stuff I love about it.  Let’s not go crazy here.  The picnic scene is beautiful.  The witch burning scene is powerful.  There are some lovely thoughts throughout the film.  The cinematography is stunning and stark and full of rightfully iconic imagery.  And the movie is unfocused in the best way, covering a wealth of themes and scenarios and viewpoints.  It’s as if Bergman is trying to depict not a situation or a story, but life itself.

Yet, I wasn’t captivated.  I could attribute this to having a person next to me struggling to maintain her interest, but that’s not all there is to it.  Bergman wrestling with his faith is something that runs through much of his work… but doesn’t the trilogy of Through a Glass Darkly, Winter Light and The Silence form a much more eloquent and thoughtful approach to the subject?  Harriet Andersson proclaiming “God is a spider” is more artful, more chilling than Max Von Sydow openly asking God to speak to him.  Really, looking at it through the lens of today, isn’t the image of a knight playing chess with Death rather… trite?  Yes, bearing in mind that it’s an image that’s been endlessly copied, honored and parodied, but does anyone watching it now feel that inspired by it?  Does it still hold its power?

I don’t know if it ever really did for me.  I look at my old (mini-)reviews and something feels a bit fraudulent about them.  I have a sense that some — not all, but some — of my love for the film came from the expectation that I was supposed to love it.  It’s The Seventh Seal, for fuck’s sake.  You don’t talk shit about The Seventh Seal.  But the truth is, I don’t recall ever having very enthusiastic feelings about it.  Maybe my memory is poor (it is) or maybe it’s clouded by my experience this time (probably) but I can’t remember ever having that magnificent feeling of adoration or awe or wonder that I associate with most of my favorites.  It’s a really original and beautifully-made film.  Parts of it are captivating, and it undeniably was influential and made a huge mark on the cinematic landscape.

But I’m not feeling “favorite” any more.  It didn’t sweep me off my feet.  It didn’t even make me laugh very much this time… the humor in it is surprising, but not especially good.  It’s more amusing than funny, which I guess just means it’s not laugh-out-loud funny.  And it’s not amazingly thought-provoking.  It’s full of ideas and some of them are interesting ideas or are phrased in a poetic way, but it’s not like the movie fills me with a whirlpool of thoughts.  Or emotions, for that matter.  And that’s what it boils down to.  This film, as easily as I could rhapsodize about its virtues, doesn’t stir enough in me to be considered a favorite.  Not like Fanny and Alexander or Scenes from a Marriage or Shame or the “faith trilogy”.  And that’s okay.  In a time when I’ve been feeling like my “favorites” are too codified and stale, it’s actually something of a relief to let go of one.  Rating: Very Good (87)


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Oliver! (rewatch)

Posted by martinteller on July 14, 2014

I’m calling this a rewatch, but it was basically like a first viewing.  I have a very dim memory of going to see it in a theater for a class field trip (or maybe a day camp trip) when I was very young.  Actually, now I’m wondering if I just saw the trailer for it before some other movie (no, I wasn’t born yet in 1968… it would have been mid-70’s or maybe even early 80’s, but they used to re-release movies a lot more back then).  But whatever, I’m calling it a rewatch anyway because who cares?

So, this is a pretty grim setting for a musical.  There are probably earlier examples of such juxtaposition between tone and setting for the genre, but none are coming to mind at the moment.  The Sound of Music is about Nazi persecution, but it’s pretty easy to forget that for the most part.  Marat/Sade, from the previous year, is very dark indeed, but calling it a musical may be a stretch.  But here we have child exploitation and domestic violence and crushing poverty amidst joyful dancing and giddy songs.  That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, nor is the cognitive dissonance it produces, but it is hard to tell how much irony is involved.  Is it sugar-coated, or is it tongue-in-cheek?  It’s such a loony idea that it’s not immediately apparent what they’re going for.

It’s disquieting — and this is more Dickens’s fault than anyone else’s — that the story is really about restoring Oliver to his “proper” place in society.  Never mind the other kids… Oliver isn’t supposed to be poor!  The revelation that he is meant to be with this wealthy family is there to make his situation seem more tragic.  Now it’s even more important that he be rescued!  It’s kind of fucked up.  And as I mentioned in my review of David Lean’s Oliver Twist, the title character does almost nothing in the whole story.  Except for the choice to run away from the undertaker, he has almost no agency.  Of course, that’s how it would be for a small child with no support system and no assets, but it’s hard to root for a person who doesn’t get much of a chance to display any particular character traits.

It’s the supporting characters who are far more interesting, and the three main baddies are the highlights of this movie.  From least villainous to most, we have The Artful Dodger (Jack Wild), Fagin (Ron Moody) and Bill Sikes (Oliver Reed).  The first two were both nominated for Supporting Oscars and I have no problem with that.  I’d love to watch a movie just about Dodger and Fagin, which could either go light (their wacky pickpocketing adventures!) or dark (the exploitative and possibly abusive nature of their relationship).  Wild feels like a natural for the screen even at his young age and Moody is a weaselly delight.  And Reed simply dominates… he’s not just intimidating, he’s downright terrifying.  I also liked Harry Secombe as Bumble.  As is often the case, it’s the bad guys who bring the most compelling performances… baby-faced Mark Lester in the lead is mere wallpaper next to them.

Of course, a musical largely lives on the strengths of its numbers, and it’s here where the movie didn’t quite ring my bells.  The production design is lavish (and appropriately grimy) and there’s some marvelous cinematography.  But a lot of the songs didn’t grab me, and some of them seem to go on forever.  “Who Will Buy” is an epic, wearying display of roadshow excess.  Just when you think it’s finally going to end, here comes another 50 guys high-stepping down the avenue.  I also found some of the choreography throughout the film to be somewhat clichéd and uninspired, too… well, musical-ish.  Like kicking-up-your-heels kinda stuff.  However, “Consider Yourself” is an absolute joy, and it’s hard to resist the classic “Food, Glorious Food” (although it can be hard the make out the lyrics when you’ve got so many people trying to sing in unison).  While I didn’t hate any of the songs, a lot of them just wore out their welcome.

So now I find myself in this wishy-washy place again.  Some stuff I liked, some stuff I didn’t like, nothing to sway me too far in either direction.  I must admit the incongruity between tone and content is a bit interesting, but it’s not enough to chew on for very long.  I can see why the movie has its fans — it certainly puts in some work to be entertaining — but it didn’t connect much with me.  Rating: Good (71)



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