Monday, February 19, 2007

Movies for the Week Ending 2/18/07

Leo McCarey was convinced that the Cary Grant persona was an impersonation of himself, learned by Grant on the set of The Awful Truth (1937). I doubt very much that this is wholly true, but I suspect there might be a kernel of truth to it. Grant, the chameleon, picked up bits and pieces of a lot of the people he worked with. But to my eye, the Grant persona was already in place as early as Sylvia Scarlet, two years prior to The Awful Truth. That said, it’s possible that The Awful Truth shows the Grant persona perfected. The movie itself is great fun, and Grant’s deft self-deprecation is one of the film’s main attractions. Watching him spar with co-star with Irene Dunne as they both try to wreck the other’s happy divorce is a delight. I used to love the Dunne/Grant pairings, but time hasn’t been kind to them. Dunne seems woefully out of her league, a creation of the 1930s, while Grant seems timeless. This probably works the best of them, though, and the look she gives Grant from her bed at the end of the movie is a look that I can imagine on the faces of a lot of women were Cary Grant to walk into their bedrooms.

Most of the reviews of Johnnie To’s Breaking News (2004) focus on the opening shot. It’s a great shot, so I’m not going to quibble with this, but the consensus seems to be that, outside of that shot, the rest of the movie is rote. I’m not so sure about that. There are two things in the movie that set it apart from standard Hong Kong actioners: The first is the sly, meta-cinematic reworking of Johnny Mak’s Long Arm of the Law (1984)--in both films, a gang of criminals is trapped by the police in one of Kowloon’s mammoth apartment blocks. It’s commonly thought that the satiric point of the movie is trained at the media--and it is--but it’s also trained at the history of the Hong Kong action film itself. Most viewers won’t catch this, or even care about it, but I liked it. The other thing that sets it apart is the measure of everyday life that our gang of criminals brings to their ordeal. They take a family hostage, discover that the father (To regular Lam Suet) cannot cook, and end up making a feast for the family. Both of our criminal masterminds dream of opening restaurants. It’s a totally unlooked-for flourish in a film that could be a routine programmer. We also get still more variations of the director’s obsession with cell phones, which marks this distinctively as a To film. To may be my favorite director on the Pacific rim right now.

In the interests of full disclosure, here’s how I stand with Robert Bresson: I was indifferent at best towards both The Trial of Joan of Arc and Diary of a Country Priest. I hated Au Hasard Balthazar, which may be the most disgustingly misanthropic movie I’ve ever seen. I was quite content to let sleeping dogs lie. I have plenty of other interests without forcing my way to an appreciation. In steps my significant other, who collects Arthuriana, with Bresson’s Lancelot of the Lake (1974). Now, I don’t know what I was expecting. Much as I disliked Balthazar, I’ll certainly admit that it was impeccably filmed, so I wasn’t expecting Lancelot to be as unwatchably awful as it turned out to be. For a brief moment at the beginning of the film, I wanted to pop it out of the DVD player to make sure that we were watching the right film. The opening sequence, consisting of various slaughter and mutilation of knights, seems like a first sketch for a Monty Python skit, or a poor-man’s imitation of the bloodier chambara set pieces from Japan, only with blood pumps set to “ooze” rather than “geyser.” The feeling that this was a half-baked sketch was reinforced by the constant, annoying clatter of armor. The film’s other signature sound effect is the whinny of an off-screen horse. The film repeats this sound effect--the same, unvarying sound effect--at random throughout the movie--and, again, I began to think of Monty Python (the resemblance between this and Monty Python and the Holy Grail is too close to be an accident). The film has no interest in people, except, perhaps, to delineate how awful human beings are. Bresson communicates this through his zombie actors and by a desire to look at anything but a human face except when he can’t get around it. There are a LOT of shots of the feet of knights and the feet of horses in this movie, so many that it becomes ridiculous, even at an 80 minute running time. In his desire to deny the audience the pleasure of romance or spectacle--and I’m sure that this is the intent--Bresson elides anything that might be considered a set-piece, resulting an a completely disjointed narrative as the film comes to its climax. We see aftermaths, mostly, but we don’t see context. After we finished watching this movie, my GF said “Well, that’s two hours I’ll never get back.” I didn’t have the heart to tell her that it was only an hour and twenty minutes. Such is the relativistic, time-dilating effect of really terrible movies.

I think I’m done with Bresson.

99.9 (1997) is another film by Spaniard Augusti Villaronga, whose other films ambushed me late last year. Villaronga knows how to get under the skin. He knows how to give the knife a twist or two beyond what the audience thinks it can bear. He’s on speaking terms with horror in a way few directors can manage for long. This film is no different. It follows the host of a radio show as she tries to unravel the death of a friend who died under mysterious circumstances while conducting paranormal research in a small village in Andalusia. The plot has an Asian feel to it, on the surface. Parts of the film, detailing our heroine’s friend and his work, mine the videodromic dread of The Ring and its progeny. But unlike those films, the film ultimately has a little-c catholic view of horror and evil. Evil in Villaronga’s world is part of the air. It’s everywhere. It’s wherever you find it. That all said, this isn’t nearly as alarming a film as In a Glass Cage. Its focus is far too diffuse. Villaronga follows a number of narrative dead ends as a result. The film doesn’t add up, exactly, but when it is clicking, it remains as bruisingly hurtful to the audience as the director’s other films, only with less of a point. He’s traded scalpels for an aluminum baseball bat, if you will, but both will screw you up bad in the right (or wrong) hands.