Monday, January 31, 2005

Weekend viewing

All About Eve (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1950)
Sometimes I watch a classic movie and wonder to myself, "What the hell is wrong with me that I haven't seen this movie before?" This was definitely one of those times. I am trying hard to play catch-up and broaden my knowledge of film history and genre as much as possible, so I'm sure I'll end up with many more of those moments, but once I get past feeling stupid, it's a great feeling to discover an absolutely wonderful film. It was interesting to me that Mankiewicz both wrote and directed, which was apparently fairly common for him, since I thought that was a pretty rare practice until the late 1960s, at least in Hollywood cinema. Whatever the reason, he does a great job with both; this film has one of the sharpest screenplays I've ever seen. The dialogue is so crisp and cutting, and so many of the throwaway lines are perfect deadpan one-liners. Of course it helps to have such a talented cast, mainly the sublime Bette Davis and the droll George Sanders (who won an Oscar for his role). The females are generally better than the males - the two male leads, Gary Merrill and Hugh Marlowe, are pretty much just generic square-jawed 1950s leading men. But they still do well enough, and the rest of the cast is superb. The story skates comedy and drama perfectly, and is surprisingly relevant even today in its comments on aging in the spotlight. Pretty much a flawless film, and wonderfully entertaining. It also definitely illuminated some things about Pedro Almodovar's All About My Mother, which I saw a few months ago. Almodovar takes Eve's lesbian subtext and makes it explicit, and actually comes up with a much softer, kinder story in the end.

Dig (Ondi Timoner, 2004)
My friend Jason raved about this film, which won the documentary prize at Sundance last year. It's definitely a fascinating rock documentary, an interesting companion to Metallica: Some Kind of Monster, which looks at what dysfunctional musicians do with way too much money and success. This film looks at dysfunctional musicians with no money and no success, specifically psychedelic rockers the Brian Jonestown Massacre. The train wreck of megalomaniacal BJM leader Anton Newcombe is mesmerizing, and Timoner stands back and allows him to hang himself with his own rope as he treats his band members like shit, blows record deals, acts like an asshole and indulges in heroin abuse. She also allows him to demonstrate his clear talent, and what emerges is a clear and well-rounded portrait of a genius who absolutely cannot function in society. The problem is that that is only about two thirds of the film; the other third is devoted to the Dandy Warhols, friends and sometime rivals of the BJM who have a similar sound but much more success and stability. Timoner is way too kind to the Dandys, painting them as these stable, happy people with a relatively easy road to success. And while they are certainly stable and successful in contrast to the BJM, they clearly have their own ego issues (especially frontman Courtney Taylor, who undermines the film's objectivity by serving as narrator) and never achieve the heights of success they hope for when they first get signed. Popular in Europe but still fairly obscure in the U.S., the Dandys are only a modest success. The free pass Timoner gives the Dandys doesn't ruin the film by any means, but it does taint her objectivity and make it look unfortunately like she's playing favorites.

Thesis (Alejandro Amenabar, 1996)
Amenabar, who is all over the place right now for directing The Sea Inside (which I have yet to see), started with horror movies, and this was his first. It's got some hallmarks of being low budget and the work of a neophyte director, but it's still an effective thriller with some good scares. The plot, which traces an underground network of snuff films, is actually quite similar to the awful Joel Schumacher film 8MM, only done in a much less ham-handed and cheesy way. There are perhaps one too many twists, but it's got a neat (if unsubtle) critique on violence in the media, and some interesting characters. A solid first effort, and indicative of how well he'd create scares later in The Others (and presumably also Open Your Eyes, which I haven't seen). Although The Sea Inside has gotten rave reviews, it's obviously one of those tearjerking inspirational dramas, and it always disappoints me a little when good horror directors leave behind their roots as soon as they achieve some success. I hope Amenabar gets back to the genre eventually, because he's clearly good at it. If there's one thing cinema needs more of right now, it's talented and intelligent horror filmmakers.

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