Month: September 2016

Network

networkWorkplace comedy, media satire, smart and articulate dialogue – it’s little wonder that I loved this 1976 black comedy-drama about the TV network cynically exploiting a deranged former news anchorman for the sake of ratings. The film might be 40 years old now, but it’s amazing how relevant it still feels, even though the grip and power of television has been rather diluted since then.

I knew virtually nothing about this movie beforehand other than, a) Faye Dunaway was in it and b) the famous “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore” rant. The latter comes from Howard Beale (Peter Finch), a veteran news presenter who learns that he’s about to be fired. The first sign of his crack-up comes when, during the live broadcast, he promises to kill himself on air. Understandably, he’s yanked off the TV, but he begs his boss and long-time friend Max Schumacher (William Holden) to give him one last chance at a more dignified farewell. Instead, he ends up having a total meltdown, culminating with his famous tirade. At first it seems a final nail in the coffin, but his ravings catch the attention of Diana Christiansen (Faye Dunaway), a shark of a programming executive who is looking for an “angry” show and thinks that Beale is a perfect modern-day mad prophet who could get their ratings going. That he’s really a mentally unstable man in urgent need of psychiatric help is a minor detail that can be brushed aside.

Diana is a fabulously devilish character: seductive, obsessed, power-hungry, amoral, and Dunaway rips into the role with gusto (and her cheekbones could cut diamonds). She ends up having an affair with Schumacher, whose job she also promptly takes over and who is strangely fascinated with her, even though he knows he’s in for the world of pain and trouble hooking up with a woman incapable of real human relationships. There’s a hilarious/sad scene where, during even their most intimate moments, Diana won’t stop talking about her job, ratings and contracts. There’s no idea too outrageous for Diana – one of her babies is a show called Mao Tse Tung Hour, a show based on the real exploits of a group of radicals, whom she woos with a contract. While funny, this subplot feels more like a story convenience that comes into play near the end.

Network doesn’t really say anything unexpected (big corporations only care about the profits!), but I’ve rarely seen it said in such an entertaining and articulate way. Thanks god this DVD had the subtitles, because I wouldn’t wish to miss on any of the movie’s razor-sharp dialogue.

The Wicker Man

wickermanOther than catching up on good movies, I also decided to catch up on some all-time meme-spawning stinkers, starting with this honest-to-goodness terrible remake of the 1973 cult horror classic. I’ve never seen the original, but I watched its ending on YouTube years ago and it was honestly one of the creepiest, most unsettling movie endings I’ve seen. The 2006 version however is so ludicrous and ineptly made that even my deep-seated fear of fire didn’t stir once during its near-identical ending.

It is however a highly entertaining bad movie if you’re in a mood to laugh incredulously at its bizarre choices and total lack of any sense. It wouldn’t be as much fun if it didn’t star Nicolas Cage, bless him. I haven’t paid money to watch a Nicolas Cage film at the cinemas since Adaptation in 2002, but I confess, I still have a soft spot for the guy and his distinctive half-mumble, just because he’s such a strange creature. Say all you want about his overacting, but at least he’s not your generic leading man. Cage plays a cop called Edward Malus, who receives a letter from his ex-fiance Willow, asking him to come help find her missing daughter Rowan. It leads him to Summersisle, a farming commune on a remote island in the middle of nowhere, where everyone is named after a plant and dresses in 19th century fashions, phone service doesn’t exist, women are in charge and men are their mute submissive servants used for breeding and heavy lifting. And absolutely no one will give him a straight answer. Oh and there’s some pagan festival coming up in a couple of days.

This male vs. female angle, which replaces the original’s Catholic vs. pagan theme, could have been interesting but I’ve no idea what the movie is trying to say. Is it saying that women are scary and evil? Or is it instead a feminist revenge fantasy? Hard to say because all the characters in the movie are awful, including Malus, who acts like a total jerk and might be the worst onscreen detective ever. Mind you, his ire is understandable when he has to deal with his ex, who looks constantly on the verge of tears and won’t… finish… her sentences or give a simple direct answer. Seriously, here’s a sample:

Her: I can’t let them do this to me.
Him: Do what? What? What is it you’re not telling me?
Her: Forgive me.
Him: Forgive you for… I’m lost.
Her: I don’t know…
Me: Arrrrrrrrghhhhhhhh shut uuuuuup!

Malus is also haunted by the memory of a girl he couldn’t save from a burning car at the start of the film, and the movie makes sure to replay that scene over and over for no apparent reason. Is it supposed to be his motivation for wanting to get it right this time and save little Rowan? Why, if the movie then gives him an even stronger personal reason (try to guess it in one go)? In fact, nothing about the story or character motivations makes sense, the movie can’t manage any decent scares, and The Wicker Man is a total failure as a film in general and horror flick in particular. But it does give you such unintentionally hilarious gems as Cage running around in a bear suit and Ellen Burstyn dressed as Braveheart, so I find it impossible to hate. How could anyone look at this and think it was a good idea?

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They might take our lives, but they will never take away our dignity! Oh wait…

Cape Fear

cape-fear_bd_posterAnother one on my list of Scorsese-movies-to-watch, Cape Fear is a gloriously pulpy thriller about a defense attorney, Sam Bowden (Nick Nolte), who along with his family is threatened by a man from his past. Max Cady (Robert De Niro) is a violent rapist and a walking tattoo exhibition who’s been released after 14 years of prison, and wants revenge on Bowden for deliberately sabotaging his defense. Turns out, Bowden withheld an information on Cady’s victim that probably would have had Cady acquitted – a decision made for emotionally understandable reasons that still without a doubt went against what the job of a defense attorney is supposed to be about. Cady is smart enough to stay on the right side of the law, or at least not get caught, before his menacing, taunting presence drives Bowden to a breaking point and things escalate.

Bowden’s family is troubled even before Cady shows up – things aren’t great between him and his wife (Jessica Lange) with a history of infidelities on his side, and their fights make life miserable for their teenage daughter Danielle (Juliette Lewis). In a true Scorsese fashion, Bowden is not a terribly likeable protagonist – he starts off the film with what looks like a beginning of yet another affair, and comes around to making shady decisions on how to handle Cady fairly quickly after some token balking. He’s a very tainted kind of hero, maybe not someone you really root for but I liked the moral ambiguity Scorsese introduces to what could have been a very straightforward, black-and-white scenario.

Cape Fear takes its time building up the tension, which totally pays off because by the end I was sitting with my heart in my mouth dreading what was about to happen. One of the creepiest scenes in the movie involves Cady luring Danielle into an empty theatre at her school; though I was pretty sure he wasn’t going to really harm her at that point the scene gets disturbing in a different fashion with Danielle rather attracted to Cady’s air of danger. De Niro’s demonic, aggressive performance struck me as overly cartoonish at first, but his total commitment to his psychotic character won me over in the end; and even though you know his true nature Cady’s charm still catches you off-guard in some scenes. The overly dramatic score (it reminded me of the old Hollywood thrillers from the 40s, which was probably deliberate?) initially annoyed me, and the movie’s zoom-in shots got a bit repetitive, but overall it’s an effective, stylish and brutal exercise in suspense.

Brick

brick_pic2I think I would have enjoyed this movie much more if the DVD I watched had subtitles. It’s a strange and rather original hybrid of a highschool film and the hardboiled detective noir in the style of Dashiell Hammett, and so everyone speaks in this highly stylized slang I just couldn’t tune into. Language is a funny thing: these days it’s much more natural for me to express myself in English rather than Russian, yet I never ever have to strain to understand Russian speech, whereas I’m still struggling with English-speaking movies at times. As a result, I think I missed out on maybe 60% of the dialogue and had to hop on wikipedia to find out the details of the plot that sailed right over my head.

Written and directed by Rian Johnson, the movie stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Brendan, a highschool loner who finds his ex-girlfriend dead soon after receiving a frantic phone call from her. He’s still not over her, so he decides not to involve the cops and solve her murder himself, tracing her movements to the highschool drug ring and cliques he’s always avoided, meeting vampish girls, thuggish boys and an eccentric crime lord. This is all played as a completely straight homage to the classic film noir, without a hint of wink or parody (though it comes close in the scene where the drug lord’s mum serves his son and Brendan cookies and cereal). Because the film is so stylized and in a sense artificial, it’s hard to really care about any of the characters, though Gordon-Levitt’s puppy-eyed vulnerability is quite endearing. The movie was still fun to watch despite my issues with the dialogue and lack of emotional involvement, and as a debut feature, it’s an astonishing display of Johnson’s already-confident visual flair and directorial skills. I really look forward to what he does with his gig directing the next Star Wars movie, if nothing else it’s going to look striking and stylish for sure.

Lady Chatterley

ladychatterleyAnother movie I missed out on in the cinemas despite the best intentions, Lady Chatterley is a French adaptation of an earlier version of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, a once-notorious novel by D. H. Lawrence. Pretty tame by today’s standards (you’ll find much more explicit content in your Jackie Collins novel), at the time the book was banned for its frank descriptions of sex, use of unprintable words and a central romance between a high society woman and a working class man. Though I really wanted to see the film, I raised my eyebrows at the running time, which clocks at almost three hours, but if anything this movie is a proof that a good movie can never be too long.

Connie (Marina Hands) is a young woman living at a gorgeous country estate with her husband Clifford, who is bound to a wheelchair after receiving an injury in World War I. They have an amiable, polite and passionless marriage which bores her out of her skull, to the point of physical illness. She begins to spend time at the forest hut of their gamekeeper, Parkin (Jean-Louis Coullo’ch), a taciturn man and something of a loner, at first because she finds the peace and quiet rejuvenating. Soon enough, the visits turn into an affair, and the movie charts the course of the relationship from its fumbling beginning – he grunts away, she lies there with the detached, what-the-hell-is-happening expression on her face – to a true intimacy, love and tenderness that transcend class. I was rather pleased that scene from the book where lovers decorate their bodies with flowers made it into the film; it could have been something truly cringeworthy (animal crackers scene from Armageddon anyone), but in the hands of a capable and, must be said, very French director it becomes touching and sexy.

The movie has a peculiar rhythm, where the individual scenes unfold gently and take their time, but the transitions between the scenes are done abruptly with lots of fade-to-black (and I mean lots), title cards (which I haven’t seen in movies in ages) and voiceover. It shouldn’t really work but somehow it all adds to the feeling of reading a novel on a long lazy afternoon. The leads are absolutely wonderful – Hands has a lively, expressive face that perfectly conveys Connie’s emotions; her male lead might not be an Adonis, shortish with a rough-hewn appearance, but their scenes together have a genuine sensuality. Another big standout of the movie is the beautiful setting that frames Connie’s physical awakening, which is shot with an obvious love for nature and really made me pine for the lush, green, sunlit European forests. It’s honestly one of the very few things I miss here in Australia. The movie touches briefly on the wider social and political issues, but not to the degree they’re explored in the later version of the book – this is a much more straightforward story. The only problem I had with the film is the ending, which doesn’t really feel like one – it plays just like another scene and then the movie simply… ends. Maybe I’m too used to the conventional ways of ending a film, but it felt jarring.

Good Bye Lenin!

goodbye-lenin-1Charming, moving and funny German film set in East Berlin around the time of Germany’s re-unification in 1989. Even if it wasn’t any good, you’d still have to admire the original premise.

Alex (Daniel Brühl, totally adorable here) is an average young guy from the socialist part of Berlin, living in an apartment with his sister and mother, Christiane (Kathrin Sass). His father, we’re told, abandoned the family to live in West Germany with some capitalist home wrecker, and since then Alex’ mother has become a hardcore activist who lives for the socialist cause. But the winds of change are blowing, and one night Christiane collapses into a coma when she sees her son march in an anti-communist rally. In the months she spends unconscious, the Berlin Wall comes down, the old money becomes obsolete, and the capitalism moves in. When Christiane wakes up, Alex is told that another big shock could potentially be lethal, so he decides to conceal the truth about the reunited Germany from his mother and re-create East Berlin in her old bedroom where she recuperates.

Maintaining this illusion is no easy task and leads to the some of the film’s most hilarious moments. Alex spends time frantically looking for his mother’s favourite pickles, which are no longer on the shelves, or at least trying to fake them with the new Western produce repackaged in old jars he finds at a dumpster. When Christiane can’t help but notice some Western advertising out of her window, he enlists the help of his workmate with film director pretensions to create some fake news footage he then plays to his mother through a hidden VCR. Alex’s deceptions grow bigger and more elaborate, but the movie does an admirable job making them seem plausible within the film’s universe.

Despite the wacky premise and humour, Good Bye Lenin! is more of a tragicomedy than a straight comedy, and has a sad, poignant side to it. It’s not exactly nostalgic about the old German Democratic Republic, but it also shows that the change is not all roses and “capitalism, hell yeah”. In a way, in order to explain to his mother the new Western elements like a Coca-Cola ad and new cars, Alex unwittingly ends up not re-creating the old East Berlin, but inventing the GDR he might actually have wanted to live in and be proud of. It’s also a wonderful movie about the bonds of family.