Movie Education – December 2011 Update

It was a busy, busy month, but I managed to watch an awful lot of movies. I even had my first ever Movie Education With Mom. Let’s just get into things so we’re not here all day.

Zelig – Woody Allen’s mockumentary on the strange case of a human chameleon is funny, odd and extraordinarily well done.  The modern mockumentary is essentially a riff on Spinal Tap, with scenes of people ad libbing their talks to the camera and awkward moments the camera just happened to catch. Zelig is something else, more a PBS documentary built of old photos and snips of research footage than a Christoper Guest film. It’s meticulous, and it’s also really, really funny.

Harakiri – Japanese movies not made by Akira Kurosawa or Yasujiro Ozu tend to feel like filmed adaptations of theater more than films, and for long stretches Harakiri is no different. Luckily, it happens to be a pretty great piece of theater. A disgraced ronin appears at a lord’s house and begs for the right to commit seppuku in their forecourt. It seems, in these early days of the Shoganate, this has become a common way for disgraced samurai to extort charity from lords who don’t want the mess of a dead samurai in their home. What follows is the story of one lord’s cruel solution to this problem, and the vengeance he’s brought down on himself as a result. If you can take a bit of stodginess, this is pretty good.

Sixteen Candles – Every time I admit I haven’t seen a John Hughes teen comedy there’s a wail across my Twitter feed like nothing else. Then I admit that, until I started the Education that I’d only seen Ferris Bueller and, frankly, never liked it that much. Hughes’ teen films exist in some kind of alien alternate reality version of high school that doesn’t click with me at all. Like all Hughes movies, I found Sixteen Candles watchable but not extraordinary. It did have some great moments of Ringwald’s character getting family harassment over her growth into a woman that was honest and great. I can see why people liked this one, but I can barely even remember the plot at this point, myself.

Persona – Yes, yes, this is only the second Bergman film I’ve seen. No, admitting that on Twitter gets nowhere near the reaction the Hughes thing does. I…ok, so I’m glad I saw this, but I’m honestly not sure if I understood it. It opens with a surreal montage right out of  Un Chien Andalou, then settles into following a nurse and her patient. Her patient, an actress, has suddenly stopped speaking. Is she faking? Does she have some sort of trauma? The movie plays out as a psychological power struggle between the two women, lapsing occasionally back into the surreal at critical points.  I need to make watching more of Bergman’s films as a priority. I feel like I don’t get his language, yet, and it’s holind me back.

Nights of Cabiria – Fellini! How I love thee. Though, to be fair, I prefer later career, fantasist Fellini to early career, neorealist Fellini. Nights of Cabriria falls into the space between the two, with a plot out of his neorealist days and a style stretching towards what he’d develop into. Cabriria follows its eponymous heroine, a prostitue who we meet being nearly drowned ny her pimp/boyfriend when he robs her, as she floats past tragedy after tragedy. People have compared her to Chaplin’s Little Tramp, and that’s as good a comparison as any. Cabiria is sweet and hopeful no matter how many times she’s betrayed or hurt. There isn’t a ton of plot – that’s the neorealist influence, sadly – but the final shot, of a crying Cabiria wandering into a parade of musicians and slowly breaking into a smile, is so beautiful that it’s worth the entire film.

Le Samourai – I was griping about French New Wave films on Twitter when a friend told me to stop complaining until I’d seen Le Samourai. I like a challenge, so I immediately put it on the list and gave it a try. And? What a film. Cool, slick and confident, you can feel dozens of assassin films being born from this one. The plot is simple. An assassin slips up, gets seen, and spends the movie evading the cops and his former employers. The success is in the details, in its presentation and style. Here’s the thing, though. I really don’t think Jean-Pierre Melville is a French New Wave director so much as a director working in France during the New Wave. There’s a distinct difference in the texture of this film to say, Breathless or The 400 Blows, and that difference is exactly what I felt those films were lacking. Le Samourai is distant but not detached, cool but not empty. Unfortunately, that means I still admire the New Wave more than I like it. But Le Samourai? That I liked. Lots.

Another Woman – I began and ended the month with Woody Allen. I don’t typically watch multiple films by one filmmaker – or even in one style – in a given month, but I was at my mom’s baking and she suggested we give Another Woman a watch. Absolutely not one of his funny ones, Another Woman is about infidelity and emotional detachment. The cast is superb – especially Gina Rowlands as the lead – and the script is a work of perfect, quiet honesty. Rowlands plays a writer in a marriage gone cold, a marriage both committed adultery to begin. When relationships are born out of infidelity, can anything other than infidelity be expected? My mom spent the early part of the movie afraid she’d misremembered it as a good  (it starts a bit slow) but we spent the rest of the day talking it over as we baked. Highly, highly recommended.


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