A Week in the Life of a Film Geek (May 3-9, 2010)
Life of Brian (1979) ***1/2
Directed by Terry Jones
Life of Brian (1979)- Anarchy of Monty Python doesn't fit well into a conventional narrative--still moments of pure genius. ***1/2 of 5
I'll never forget that early Saturday morning two years ago when I sat down to watch Monty Python and the Holy Grail as part of my Iconic Irreverent Comedies Marathon. After the overly precious The Dentist on the Job bit at the very beginning, which didn't charm me at all, I laughed nonstop, and once the credits rolled following the most randomly brilliant ending, I declared it to be the funniest comedy I've ever seen. Nothing since has taken that title away.
Life of Brian contains single moments and ideas that equal the brilliance and success of Holy Grail, but sadly, its plot about a man born the same day as Jesus who ends up living a sort of parallel life as he journeys to find himself stifles the anarchy and the chaotic energy on which Monty Python thrives. I wanted less chase scenes and marginally funny predictable banter and more moments like the one when Brian falls off the roof of the temple and is caught by a flying vehicle of some kind (I don't want to spoil the best joke in the movie).
There are certainly enough laughs to make Life of Brian hold up for repeated viewings, and the iconic final scene involving crucifixion victims singing, "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life," may be one of the funniest endings ever; however, with the Monty Python moniker, I was hoping for another great cinematic experience with Life of Brian. Because of unreasonable expectations, I set myself up for disappointment despite the fact that this movie is solid overall. In the future, with Monty Python films I've yet to see like Meaning of Life and Now for Something Completely Different, my need for such transcendent hilarity has been tempered. Why would I want to set movies up to let me down? After all... (music begins)
The Lost Weekend (1945) ***
Directed by Billy Wilder
The Lost Weekend (1945)- I applaud its intentions and its unflinching commitment, but Reefer Madness-like camp weighs heavy. *** out of 5
And the Academy Award for Best Picture goes to... a movie that undoubtedly felt fresh and edgy in 1945, but today, it's painfully dated, ridiculously overblown and almost comically campy at times. It tells the story of alcoholic Don Birnam, played by Ray Milland in an Oscar winning performance, a singularly talented writer who started drinking when his first few attempts at professional writing did not turn out as expected. Things escalated out of control when he meets Time magazine writer Helen St. James, played by Jane Wyman, an upper class socialite with picky parents who demand someone successful for their daughter.
It's been three years since Don and Helen met outside the coat check room of an opera house, and Don's buttoned up brother Wick, played by Phillip Terry, suggests that they go on a weekend getaway in order to help Don in his latest attempt to turn sober and perhaps to begin the novel he's always wanted to write. Though both Helen and Wick are used to Don's nonstop drinking, they still give him the benefit of the doubt when they let him stay home alone before they're meant to catch the evening train. Predictably, Don goes out and gets hammered, thus beginning the weekend when Don finally hits rock bottom.
So begins Filmspotting's Billy Wilder marathon, which will include one of my all-time favorite movies, Sunset Blvd., along with the much lauded Some Like It Hot, which did not do too much for me the first time I saw it. I look forward to checking it out again. Knowing nothing at all about The Lost Weekend other than its director, I was looking forward to sitting down and watching what I presumed might be a light, entertaining comedy. Instead, from its tragically sad and uncomfortable opening scene where Don is discovered hiding a bottle of whiskey to its conclusion involving a gun and Don's desire to end his life, The Lost Weekend was a tough, sobering sit, unflinchingly showcasing a man's losing battle with some profound inner demons.
Ray Milland is absolutely brilliant in a no-holds-barred, risky performance which many warned would ruin his career if he chose to take the part. Milland is a handsome man in real life, but he's unspeakably ugly at times as Don Birnham, never afraid to illicit hatred, disgust and frustration from the audience. He's surrounded by a solid supporting cast, and Wilder's direction is almost dizzying in its aggressiveness, often keeping the viewing off balance in order to connect us with Don's state of mind. There's a brilliant scene at the opera when the performers sing a song while toasting their drinks which teases Don to the point where the dancers turn into disembodied rain coats reminding him that he stored a bottle of whiskey in his coat pocket. Unfortunately, this level of narrative flourish does not work so well when Don begins to hallucinate one night after an especially violent binge. There's a scene with a mouse and a bat that is meant to be the stuff of nightmares, but instead, it's hard to watch without completely laughing out loud. First of all, I'm pretty sure alcohol isn't a hallucinogenic drug. As such, this scene comes dangerously close to the camp seen in a film like Reefer Madness. Second, as the nurse at the institution for alcoholics makes clear, these hallucinations are common during detox. Don had this particular hallucination while he was drunk as anything. Not only is this scene pathetically corny, it's also completely unfounded in more ways than one. I'm sure critics and audiences alike were blown away by the audacity and horror of the scene in 1945, but 65 years later, that sequence couldn't be more dated.
The Lost Weekend doesn't quite stand the test of time, though it's undeniably brutal in its portrayal of alcoholism. There have been countless films since which deal with addiction in a more realistic way such as When a Man Loves a Woman, Bad Lieutenant and Leaving Las Vegas. Yet, those films owe a lot to the courage of all involved in The Lost Weekend since that opened the door to allow this subject matter to be fodder for mainstream Hollywood fare. It earns my respect for that alone, despite moments that can only be described as downright stupid.
The Secret in their Eyes (2010) ****1/2
Directed by Juan Jose Campanella
The Secret in their Eyes- A film about a story within a novel. Novel's story is cheesy, but the film about it is sly and smart. ****1/2 of 5
The Secret in their Eyes, the surprise Foreign Film Oscar winner at this year's Academy Awards beating out Michael Haneke's odds-on-favorite The White Ribbon, is an excellent film. It's wonderfully directed and impeccably well acted. Yet, the main reasons why I enjoyed this film so much seem quite different from lots of other critics. I believe that Campanella's screenplay, based on the novel by Eduardo Sacheri, plays around with the theme of subjective storytelling, and as such, audiences ought to keep in mind that the events we witness on screen are being filtered through one man's attempt at a novel. By definition, a novel is categorized as a fictional narrative. Therefore, some of the pieces in the story may very well have been fabricated altogether in order to make for a more interesting read.
It's this play on narrative and meta-narrative that I personally found extremely satisfying. If the story itself is meant to be taken on its surface, literal level, where some critics seem to be judging this film, then the whole thing comes off like a cliched, ridiculous procedural, containing coincidences that shatter believability altogether. Take for example a pursuit of a suspect of a brutal rape and murder which takes place in a soccer stadium filled with tens of thousands of people. The criminal investigators' plan is to keep a lookout for the man whom they're supposed to recognize from a grainy black and white photo. They happen to find the man only rows from where they are staking themselves out. Later on, one criminal investigator bumps into the victim's husband at a train station. Another sequence involves two of the protagonists encountering a pardoned killer randomly in an elevator.
These silly details make me believe that this film is meant to be about a first time writer of a novel who happens to be a retired police investigator instead of being about the investigator as such. Maybe I'm reading too much into the film, ascribing a motive to Campanella and Sacheri that they never intended at all. If so, then I still stand by my glowing praise, because I really do think the film works on this meta-level, whether it be on purpose or by accident. The Secret in their Eyes is much more than a stylish, violent episode of Law and Order. That's my story, and I'm sticking to it.