Monday, January 17, 2005

Vacation viewing

I had last week off to sit around and do nothing (my favorite pastime), but I didn't watch nearly as many movies as I would have liked. Here's what I did get around to, in between sleeping and, uh, sleeping.

Beau Travail (Claire Denis, 1999)
I am sure a sucker for these French art movies, and this is as French and arty as they come. My first exposure to Denis' work, although I'll definitely be seeking out more. (What I really want to see is her art-house vampire movie Trouble Every Day, starring Vincent Gallo, but it's not out on DVD.) Apparently this is very loosely based on Herman Melville's Billy Budd, which I read in high school, but the only thing I can remember about Billy Budd is that it took place on a boat. Beau Travail takes place on a French Foreign Legion base in Djibouti, where shirtless men idle away their days doing combat training and strangely hypnotic calisthenics that are far too choreographed to be actual military exercises. There are long, languid stretches with no dialogue, and what little story there is (a dark rumination on jealousy) is sketchy and almost incidental to the images of the toned men performing ritualistic exercises as confused African women look on, bemused. Yes, it's highly homoerotic, but it's also surprisingly beautiful, like watching modern dance. Some critics say this is a profound meditation on masculinity, and maybe it is, but I just found its poetic imagery haunting.

8 Mile (Curtis Hanson, 2002)
I'm sure I had a knee-jerk aversion to a movie starring Eminem when this first came out, but some critical acclaim and recommendations from friends actually had me looking forward to seeing it. Strangely enough, then, I ended up disappointed, since my heightened expectations were dashed by what is little more than a standard "follow your dreams" movie with some extra grit and swear words. It's a decent take on that old genre, but it's nothing outstanding, and Kim Basinger is just terrible with her bad accent and shrill delivery as Eminem's mom. The rap battles are the best part, especially at the end when the actual drama of the story plays out in the lyrics, like a musical, but there aren't enough of them, and the middle of the film drags considerably. A letdown, which is not something I'd ever expect to say about a movie starring Eminem.

Five Easy Pieces (Bob Rafelson, 1970)
I had a tough time getting into this at first, but once the story gets to the Dupea island estate, I was hooked, and the tense family drama is brilliantly acted, especially by two actresses with whom I was not familiar - Lois Smith as Bobby's sister, and Susan Anspach as his brother's girlfriend. Jack Nicholson, of course, is great as always as Bobby, and the tension between the expectations his family has for him and the way he chooses to live his life is played out with both violence and tenderness. It's quintessential 70s cinema, with a plot that meanders and an ending that leaves much unsaid, but along the way it creates rich characters whose flaws are as fascinating as their virtues. I imagine this is the kind of film Alexander Payne looks up to, and you can see the way it influenced his style, especially in the road trip scenes that are echoed in similar sequences in About Schmidt and Sideways.

My Architect (Nathaniel Kahn, 2003)
I've had this sitting next to my TV for almost a year now, and I'm glad that I finally got around to watching it, because it was terrific. I feel like my eyes were opened to a whole new genre of filmmaking when I saw Ross McElwee's Sherman's March a while back, and this is much in the same vein. You can see a clear line from Sherman's March (made in 1986) to this and to Jonathan Caouette's Tarnation from 2004. The idea of using filmmaking as a tool to deal with personal turmoil, not by writing an autobiographical drama but by actually turning the camera on yourself and your own life, is fascinating to me, and I really would love to see more examples of this type of film. Sadly, none of McElwee's other films are on DVD, and his latest, Bright Leaves, never made it to Vegas. It seems to me that there is so much rich territory to be explored in this genre, to turn the documentary into something like a visual memoir, and perhaps the success of Tarnation will open doors for more of that.

As for this particular film, it focuses on Nathaniel's quest to understand his father, renowned architect Louis I. Kahn, who died when Nathaniel was only 11 and never acknowledged his son's existence officially, since Nathaniel was born a bastard child to one of Kahn's mistresses. By both probing his father's artistic legacy by visiting his famous buildings and talking to architects and scholars, and examining his own fractured family, Nathaniel attempts to come to an understanding of how someone who was thought to be such a genius could have been such a shitty father. Although the film has its flaws - Nathaniel is a clumsy interviewer, and often seems to keep his own feelings at a distance - it is powerful and moving and captivating, and, to me at least, eye-opening about the possibilities of both a medium (film) and a genre (documentary) that are sometimes too rigidly defined. As McElwee and Kahn and certainly Caouette have proved, what some might consider simply home movies can become beautiful pieces of art in the right hands.

Paper Moon (Peter Bogdanovich, 1973)
I am late to the game discovering Bogdanovich, so it's disappointing to me to realize that he apparently made three great films in the 70s (this, The Last Picture Show and What's Up, Doc?) and then made a string of failures before being relegated to shooting made-for-TV docudramas. I loved The Last Picture Show, with its layered characters, gorgeous black and white cinematography and bittersweet evocation of small town life, and I loved Bogdanovich's brief comeback, 2001's The Cat's Meow, which is a criminally underrated period comedy that captures 1920s Hollywood in all its hedonistic glory and features one of Kirsten Dunst's best performances. Paper Moon is another sheer joy, with the same gorgeous black and white photography as The Last Picture Show, and the same deft period comedy (although in a different period) as The Cat's Meow. A Depression-era road movie that plays like the comedic version of The Grapes of Wrath, it's got these amazing long takes and sharp performances by Ryan and Tatum O'Neal, two actors who are not exactly on top of Hollywood anymore. Bogdanovich, with his ridiculous ascot, is also engrossing on the extra features on the DVD, and his love of film history comes through in every aspect of the movie. I've got What's Up, Doc? in my NetFlix queue now, and if anyone is reading and knows what, if any, of Bogdanovich's later, lesser-known films are worth seeing, I'd love suggestions.

Stage Beauty (Richard Eyre, 2004)
Watched almost out of obligation more than anything else, as this was one of the few awards screeners I had lying around that I hadn't yet seen. Thoroughly bland story of the last male actor to play female parts on the English stage in the 1600s, and the female who took his place when the ban on actresses was lifted. This should have a light, literate feel like Shakespeare in Love, but it doesn't seem to be able to decide whether to be serious or comedic, and Billy Crudup and Claire Danes are mismatched and chemistry-free as the leads.

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