Virginia Film Fest Day 2
MODERN TIMES (Charles Chaplin, 1936, USA, 8 — formerly 7)
There really is no substitute for seeing a comedy with an appreciative audience, particularly children who are into the film despite (in this case) the film being more than 70 years old, black-and-white and mostly silent. From the mouth of babes, one budding-critic kid a couple of rows behind me said, when Chaplin left the second factory (the one that closes for a strike) and the large iron gates close behind him, “that looks like the prison gates.” Obviously MODERN TIMES stands up beautifully as pure comedy — the feeding machine, the roller-skate routine, the middle-class fantasy (it’s incredible how nonchalant this film is about living a bum’s life on the streets), feeding the trapped coworker, serving the roast duck (food is more prominent in this film than a Julia Child show), the closing song.
Couple of other things I noticed more than previous: how short and direct, almost Eisensteinian are Chaplin’s title cards; how directly Chaplin attacks and deconstructs the talkies even within this film’s text and not merely from the fact of making MODERN TIMES this way (the boss’s monitor, the description of the food machine, rehearsing his song). On the down side, the film now seems even more episodic, stitched-together and uneven than it ever has.
SEX, LIES AND VIDEOTAPE (Steven Soderbergh, USA, 1989, 10)
Like Mike D’Angelo said of himself when he re-viewed this film himself recently, it’s impossible for me to be completely objective about this movie — the first film I ever wrote a public review of, for the college paper in 1989.
That review doesn’t exist in electronic form anywhere to my knowledge, but everything I remember saying stands up 20 years later, even things I had thought I would have been faintly embarrassed by — (1) Andie MacDowell does give the best performance in the film (though she’s probably the worst actress); (2) Soderbergh clearly was influenced by Bergman (though his subsequent work isn’t) — the small-cast chamber quality, the self-conscious soul-baring discussions, the analytic tone, the spare atonal music; (3) this film is amazingly mature about sex, managing to be both incredibly explicit (in the sense of “detailed”) and frank without becoming pandering or tittilating.
What SLV understands to the very core that the most important sex organ is between the ears and that the videotapes’ per-se existence (not what they actually contain) is what the drama is about. Still Soderbergh’s best and — both because of itself and the career it launched — SLV is a landmark in American indie film that I fear may be going down the memory hole.
SOME LIKE IT HOT (Billy Wilder, USA, 1959, 10)
Before I go in, since I have time. I’ve never seen this one in a theater and so I. Can’t. Wait. But years ago, I unintentionally conducted an experiment that proved I objectively like this movie more than CITIZEN KANE. During the day of the Super Bowl one year, San Antonio’s two independent TV channels decided to counter-program during the pre-game show. One showed KANE starting at 2 (or thereabouts), and the other showed HOT, starting a halfhour later. I decided that I’d watch one until the commercial came on, then switch to the other until THAT commercial came on, then switch back (I’d already seen both movies uninterrupted more than once). That plan lasted about two cycles until about the time the band arrives in Florida. From that point on, I couldn’t turn away from HOT back to KANE and watched it straight through. For What That’s Worth.
I fled the theater to get some grub before there could begin the usual po-faced academic discussion of “gender roles” that kills interest in what I think is the 20th century’s greatest farce (yes, I do mean that). I will say that this film doesn’t really gain that much from being shown in a theater because its virtues are dialogue and plotting rather than pictorial. And this particular audience was appreciative but not overwhelmingly so (there was more laughter at MODERN TIMES and a more-packed audience). It dawned on me while I was watching that the brilliance of Wilder and Diamond’s dialog lies with the near-constant double entendres, and not (always) of the sexual kind but double meanings of all sorts. For example: when the “girls” show up at the train station to leave Chicago to flee the Mob, the manager who needed a bass and sax says “you’re a lifesaver,” and Josephine replies “likewise, I’m sure.” Seemingly every line in the film either has a double meaning or sets something up later (another example: the Sheboygan Conservatory). Even when it’s not specifically funny, HOT is so clever and so tight that it’s always fun.
CORKED (Ross Clendenen and Paul Hawley, USA, 2009, 4)
People who think Christopher Guest has run out of gas are invited to look at this film to see how good Guest still is. This mockumentary takes on a target — the California wine industry — that is very tricky because it requires, well, connoisseurship. CORKED might be funny to people intimately familiar with this industry (apparently, it premiered at the Sonoma Valley Film Festival), but not to me, an unrepentant wine philistine (though I did like MONDOVINO later in the festival).
The acting is sometimes good but just as often awful. For example, could one of the dumb racist marketer frat boys [ridiculous, BTW] not gild the lily by dropping his jaw, and breathing through his mouth (it just strokes the filmmakers and audience for their “enlightened” laughter). The writing and structure are barely better — the sheriff in particular seems to be just dropped in, like the video-sound guy in the first POLICE ACADEMY movie. CORKED isn’t worthless by any means and I did laugh sometimes (everything done by the silver-spoon kid with an enthusiasm of Tarantino), but this is local-TV material and a video look that belongs on cable-access. It says something that I actually remember liking better another California agriculture parody FRESNO (look it up, people … especially you, G-Money).
THE DRUMMER (Kenneth Bi, Taiwan, 2009, 6)
Maybe I’m being generous after seeing the amateurish CORKED! But it was a relief to see a professionally-done formula movie shot on film, with fully competent performers. DRUMMER is completely formulaic — WITNESS meets THE KARATE KID with drums instead of kicks, basically. But the actual performance scenes, of a Chinese Zen drum troupe the hero longs to join upon seeing them rehearse in the forest in gangster-exile, are simply marvelous and worth a ticket in the same way you see TOP HAT or SWING TIME for the Astaire-Rogera dancing, not the actual movie.
And it’s good to see that Jaycee Chan, fils de Jackie, isn’t trying to be his father or to make a film you could imagine Jackie Chan make, though Jaycee does suffer a charisma gap (who doesn’t?). The extra-textual knowledge of who the star’s father is even contributes to THE DRUMMER’s theme of a son trying to carve out a space separate from his father while remaining properly devoted. Still … goes on for maybe 15 minutes too long, and there is noway, nohow I’d buy the last plot point about the uncle. Even if the film hadn’t botched clarity on it.
THE PRIVATE LIVES OF PIPPA LEE (Rebecca Miller, USA, 2009, 4)
Hmmmm … there might really be something here except that Miller has absolutely no sense of tone. Or she is from South Korea, Mars or some other place where you can imagine “The Feminine Mystique” having every other chapter be a cheap, crass joke. Or think that the death of the central character’s husband is time for the wife, defending herself for charges of insufficient grief-strickenness to say “how can I compete with THAT” (pause) cut to the girlfriend (a ridiculously overdone and overdoing-it Winona Ryder) lying catatonic over a chair. ho ho ho.
The film is a psychological “My Life So Far” tale, narrated by the titular heroine, played by Robin Wright Penn. Not only is Penn quite good but there’s so much acting talent on display — Maria Bello as Penn’s mother in flashback, Alan Arkin as her husband, Julianne Moore is underwritten but her mere presence is assuring — that the movie never loses watchability. Points deducted for Keanu Reeves, doubled for his full-torso Jesus tattoo — the second use of which is so crass (a prayer that turns into a pity-fuck) that you can’t even take offense, just … well … pity. And once you get your bearings and realize that your flashing back to a Friedanesque tale of a 60s comfortable concentration camp, with the current-day story fitting a similar template (if not exactly an “updating” … this setting is clearly the post-feminism world) … once you do that, the film becomes fairly predictable. I knew right away what the chocolate cake was all about. Set in the world of New York “bobos” and so thoroughly and self-absorbedly immersed in its values (and plotting) that it can’t even wait a scene to tell you this (that first scene features Cornel West as an actor). And whenever I see films like that, I wonder “do the makers know how other-worldly and offputting this is.”
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