Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Stardust Memories (1980) *****

Woody Allen has always annoyed me a bit. His nebbishy, New York persona is hard for me to relate to. I have to admit, though, the guy is funny, and he’s a genius of a filmmaker. I just saw “Stardust Memories,” and I have to say that even among Allen’s filmography, this is a gem of a movie.

The film is an homage (or maybe more of a parody, if you will) to Federico Fellini’s “8 ½.” Just like “8 ½,” “Stardust Memories” is a stream-of-consciousness examination of the inner life of a famous movie director as he struggles to make a movie. Unlike Fellini’s director, who suffered writer’s block, Allen’s Sandy Bates character has already made the movie he wanted, but he is forced by the movie studio to create a new, more uplifting (marketable) ending. He does this while pursuing a love affair with one woman (Marie-Christine Barrault), reflecting on his failed affair with his ex-girlfriend (Charlotte Rampling), and considering an affair with a third (Jessica Harper). As the beautiful black-and-white footage unrolls, it is difficult to tell when we are in the present, in memory, or in fantasy. We are in Sandy Bates’ mind, which, like everyone’s, jumps around freely between these options.

I liked “Stardust Memories” considerably better than “8 ½.” Fellini’s film was a work of experimental genius, to be sure, but it was too long, and Fellini’s antagonist, Guido Anselmi, is too self-absorbed and weak of character to be much of a hero. I like my movies to have a hero, and unlikely as he is, Woody Allen manages to be a hero in this. Sandy is deeply flawed as a lover, but he engages in a small amount of growth during the movie, which is somehow enough to redeem his character.

There are a handful of films which are best described as Existentialist, and “Stardust Memories” is a masterpiece of the genre. The film begins with what is intended to be the end of Sandy Bates’s movie. Allen’s character sits alone on a train car filled with somber, sour-looking people. He looks across the tracks longingly at another train full of lively, happy people socializing, sharing wine, and basically having a ball. The trains take off, and Allen is miserable at being on the wrong train. When he arrives at his destination, however, he and his joyless companions find themselves at a garbage dump. As they walk through the trash, they are met by all the people from the happy train. They had very different journeys, but in the end, they all wound up in the same place. This is a rather blunt rendering of the more pessimistic side of Existentialism. The movie studio hates this ending, and Bates spends the movie dealing with his relationship issues and trying to come up with a more audience-friendly ending that won’t feel too contrived. He finds not one, but two solutions to the essential Existentialist problem: One is the pleasantly happy ending-on-a-train that he creates for his film, and the other is a quiet moment of bliss that is fully realized only as he looks back on it.

“Stardust Memories” beautifully balances the humorous and the profound. Watching it has given me a much deeper appreciation of Woody Allen’s genius. I think this movie may be slightly easier for someone who has already seen “8 ½,” but I think you will do fine with this movie as long as you come into it prepared for an atypical movie experience. This is a must-see for Existentialists everywhere!

5 stars out of 5

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1969) ****

My wife gets the credit for this one. Never in a million years would I have randomly selected a movie from the ‘60’s called “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.” That would have been my loss, because this movie is amazing! It falls under the category of movies about unconventional, inspiring teachers, e.g. “Dead Poets Society,“ but it is way more complex than most.

Maggie Smith plays Jean Brodie, a handsome, vivacious force of nature. She teaches at a girls’ school in the 1930’s and is beloved by the students and the male faculty. Rather than teaching straight history to her girls, she talks to them about art, poetry, and love, and takes them on walks around historic places. She sees a broad role for herself as an educator. As she tells one girl who admits to having no particular interests, “It is my job to give you interests.” It’s an admirable attitude, and Miss Brodie is truly devoted to her girls. She is also a woman ahead of her time, and quite the libertine. That she is able to get away with the occasional dalliance with a male faculty member is a testament to how widely she is admired by parents and former students.

There is a dark side to Miss Brodie’s dedication, though. She is equally devoted to her own romantic vision of herself, and as the story wears on we see that she is perfectly willing to sacrifice her girls on the alter of that vision. She is fond of telling her students that she is in her “prime,” and the implication is that they are lucky to be on the receiving end of wisdom from a woman in her prime. The sad part is that she is so self-deluded that she is incapable of seeing anything she does with her girls as wrong, even though it becomes apparent that Jean Brodie is capable of being a very bad influence indeed.

What makes this story so good is that Jean is neither completely good nor bad. Her failings are great, but she is also a great teacher. She offers her girls something besides rote memorization of historical facts. Doubtless most of her students grow up and look back on her as a great influence in their lives. On the other hand, she is enamored of fascist leaders Mussolini and Franco for some reason, and she takes every opportunity to impress her students with how great those leaders are. She gives a lot of herself to her girls, but it sometimes seems that she is mainly interested in her students as an audience for herself.

I find it interesting that so many people name “Dead Poets Society” as their favorite movie. Clearly there is something resonant in the story of an unconventional teacher inspiring his students in extraordinary ways. I’ll bet we all wish we had had a teacher like Robin Williams’s Mr. Keating. The thing about that movie, though, is that it is rather simplistic. There is never any doubt that Mr. Keating is right, and the hard-ass father who wants to send his son to military school is wrong. “Dead Poets Society” is about the value of questioning things and debating different ideas, but the movie really leaves no room for debate. On the other hand, “The Prime of Miss Jean Brody” gives the audience the opportunity at the end to judge for ourselves just how badly Jean Brodie transgressed. It’s the kind of thought-provoking film that I think Mr. Keating would approve of.

4 stars

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The Running Man (1987) **

I’m not sure why I re-watched this piece of 1980’s silliness. I saw it on the Netflix watch-it-now list, and just went for it. Not much of an excuse, I know. This was from the height of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s movie stardom, and the studio clearly understood that the only way they could go wrong was by driving the audience away by making a movie that was too smart. They took no chances on that. And yet, “The Running Man” still manages to be a somewhat entertaining movie, and there are times when the filmmakers let us know that they are in on the joke.

The movie is based on a novel by Stephen King. In a dystopian future world, Arnold plays Ben Richards, a cop who gets framed for murdering dozens of civilians. He escapes from prison with members of an underground resistance group, gets arrested again, and winds up on the TV game show “The Running Man.“ The show represents the logical outcome of an entertainment culture that is racing to see who can best pander to the most prurient and debased tastes of the lowest common denominator. Convicted felons are forced to run a deadly gauntlet of gimmicky gladiators. If they make it through, they supposedly get their freedom, but most get messily murdered on-screen. Richards and his friends try to negotiate this deadly game while finding a way to subvert the network satellite link and broadcast the truth about the game and the government that supports it across the world.

It’s not a bad premise for a movie, but great things should not be expected from this film. “The Running Man” is largely pitched to teenage boys, and there isn’t much substance. This is purely an action movie, and it’s okay as far as that goes, although I find even the action sequences to be a bit lazy and ponderous compared to a movie like “Die Hard.“ This is also one of those action flicks that is all about the “glib” one-liners, and man, they suck! Example: After Richards cuts one of the gladiators in half with a chainsaw, he says, “He had to split.” These kind of lines are forced and painful, and they have ruined many an action movie, with the James Bond films being a case in point. I seem to remember thinking these zingers were funny as a teenager, though, so I guess the filmmakers knew how to speak to their audience.

Now for the good parts: First, Richard Dawson is awesome! He is the old host of the game show, “The Family Feud,” and he plays the host of the Running Man brilliantly. This guy really should have done more movies. Future Minnesota governor Jesse Ventura has a small role as well, and does it up right. In fact, his character points out something about the movie that annoyed me, which made me then like the film more. All the gladiators have some sort of gimmicky weapon, like fire or electricity, which makes them really silly. Ventura plays a retired gladiator who gets called back into service after Ben Richards dispatches all the others. Ventura storms into the production room wearing some silly, creaky metal armor and starts ripping the pieces off, saying, “I don’t need this crap. I used to kill guys like this with my bare hands.”

Here’s one of the most bizarre things in the movie, and I don’t whether it was intended with irony or not. Early on, there are shots of the “Running Man” audience cheering lustily for the gladiators to kill Richards and his friends. Later, after the resistance broadcasts the truth, there are shots of the same audience lustily cheering on Richards and the resistance as they trash the TV station and fight the police. Did all those people in the bars and on the streets suddenly become enlightened citizens? Are they going to go out and fight for true democracy now? Or are they just happy to see some violence, no matter who is supplying it? Maybe I should get the actual DVD and see if there is a commentary that discusses that. On the other hand, maybe it doesn’t make sense to invest any more time in this movie.

2 Stars

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The Town (2010) ****

I suppose I’ll have to retire the Ben Affleck Test for good now. I described this test before in my review of “Hollywoodland.” Basically, in the past, for any movie I was considering watching, I would just ask myself, “Is Ben Affleck in it?” If the answer was yes, then I wouldn’t watch the movie. Simple, right? In the last few years, though, Affleck has managed to get himself together, and the test just doesn’t work anymore, as proven by his latest project, “The Town.” Oh well, at least there’s still the Keanu Reeves Test.

Based on Chuck Hogan’s novel Prince of Thieves, “The Town” is very much a Ben Affleck project. He helped write the screenplay, directed, and starred in the film. Affleck plays Doug Macray, a poor Boston-Irish guy who robs banks with his buddies. Doug plays with fire by getting into a relationship with the manager from one of the banks he robbed, while Jon Hamm’s FBI agent Frawley breathes down his neck.

There is nothing remarkable about the plot of “The Town.” It is a standard heist movie. What makes the film stand out is the top-notch performances from basically everyone in the movie, which must be a testament to Affleck, who directed them all. Jon Hamm is cool and edgy as an FBI agent, and way less annoying than Al Pacino was in “Heat.” Jeremy Renner is amazing as Doug’s dumb-but-loyal, sociopathic best friend. Blake Lively is absolutely unrecognizable as a skanked-out oxycontin-whore and Doug’s ex-girlfriend. Affleck himself is completely likeable and natural in his role. My favorite performance here, however, is that of Rebecca Hall, as the bank manager who unwittingly falls for a bank robber. I remember Hall and her natural, laid-back beauty from “Vicky Christina Barcelona.” The thing about Hall is that she wouldn’t be instantly considered the hottest girl at an Oscar party, but the more I look at her face, the more I dig her. It isn’t just her looks that make her shine in “The Town,” though. She totally nails the vulnerability and strength of this character.

I don’t know what this movie’s place in history will be. Other than tight acting and some nice camera work, there is nothing that will necessarily make this film be remembered twenty years from now. “The Town” is great entertainment for today, but in the long run it may simply be remembered as the movie that proved, once and for all, that Ben Affleck is no joke.

4 stars