A Week in the Life of a Film Geek (May 17-23, 2010)
Amelie (2001) *****
Directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet
Amelie (2001)- A truly original life affirming gem with just the right amount of sadness to balance the idealism and joy within. ***** of 5
Amelie, which was released in the United States almost immediately after 9/11, wouldn't have been made in the same way if it started production after that day of tragedy. There's a sadness that exists within the quirky, creative mind of the title character without the kind of cynicism which has befallen so many human studies throughout the middle and later years of this past decade. Amelie lives idealism in a world that we now know all too well is less than ideal.
The argument can be made that our world could use more optimism, and cinema is arguably the perfect medium to bring cultural joy. My concern, however, is that people might mistake escapism, which has its place, with a grounded hope for what the world ought to be, hence the success of The Blind Side. I resisted the shallow sentimentality of that film precisely because it contains virtually no connection with the complexities of the real world. It's a movie for people that want to remove themselves from the real world while Amelie is for those that yearn for light while not completely turning their backs on the sadness and darkness that will never go away for as long as we live.
Audrey Tautou plays Amelie, a young woman out on her own coping with life in the same ways she had to deal with a childhood that constantly provided disappoint and abandonment. She's perhaps too creative and imaginative, and the entire film exists in a world that's almost too whimsical. Yet, the whimsy only brings contentment and balance for so long, as we see Amelie's frustrations and anger take root. She's looking to fill that void in her soul, and after helping out a man reconnect with his past by giving him a box she found hidden in her apartment, she dedicates her time to helping others. The problem lies in the fact that she's too shy to actually engage with these people. Instead, she comes up with convoluted schemes to help without having to form relationships.
During these little philanthropic labors, she comes across a man who collects discarded pictures from a photo booth and artistically arranges them in an album. Even without actually talking to the guy, Amelie believes that she has found her capricious soul mate. Of course, now she has to find a way to build a relationship, and after trying her signature unattached schemes, she comes face to face with her own interpersonal inadequacies.
Tautou does an adequate job as Amelie, but I personally would have liked someone who could have kept the cutesy fantasy consistent in her performance. Someone like Marion Cotillard could have really played the role with the gravitas it needed. This is my introduction to Jeunet's direction, and his one of a kind style charmed me to no end without becoming treacly. His newest film Micmacs releases this weekend, and I can't wait to check it out when it comes to the DC area.
I felt good watching Amelie, and I felt better when it ended than I did when it started. What really sold me on the film's fantasy is that I did not have to completely leave reality behind in order to feel the way I did. In a post-9/11 world, we need more films like Amelie which help us feel happy without having to completely disengage our minds with the horrors that have and will continue to haunt our existences.
The General (1926) *****
Directed by Clyde Bruckman & Buster Keaton
The General (1926)- It's awe inspiring to see one of the true geniuses of cinema at his best. Among the greatest movies ever made.***** of 5
Yeah I'll say it... Buster Keaton is no Charlie Chaplin. On the other hand, Charlie Chaplin is no Buster Keaton either. Both are geniuses, and, despite the fact that their broad physical comedy worked perfectly in the silent film genre, their styles are quite different. Had Chaplin tried to be Keaton or vice versa, neither would have been able to improve on the quality the other brought to their subsequent films.
Chaplin's style tends towards the sentimental and melodramatic, while Keaton wears a stoic expression as he takes more dangerous risks. Chaplin's a better storyteller than Keaton, but Keaton is more in tune with the type of extreme physical feats that are usually performed these days by stunt men. Other than his small roles in Sunset Blvd. and In the Good Old Summertime, The General is the only time I've witnessed Keaton on screen so far. The American Film Institute's 2007 list of the Top 100 films positions The General as the 18th greatest American film. As such, I saw it for the first time a few years ago when I watched every movie on the list. At the time, I found some sequences pretty amazing, but the story did nothing for me. This time around, I can't express enough how much I loved the pacing and execution of the plot about a wannabe Confederate soldier who saves the Southern military from a Union attack mostly through his considerable skills as a train conductor.
At only 75 minutes long, not a moment is wasted on frivolity. The organization and focus of every single shot demonstrates a type-A film making style which engages even the most attention deficit viewers. The indulgent style of most silent films can be off putting for many, but if there's ever a film from the genre that meets today's film lover halfway, The General is the one.
Keaton does things on screen that must have been unspeakably dangerous. The early train chase sequence goes down as perhaps the greatest use of large props in film history. I can't imagine that Keaton did multiple takes on some of the more intricate visual gags. Had things gone wrong, my guess is that the train could have been damaged and/or Keaton himself might have suffered serious injuries. Chaplin never attempted to throw one massive wood beam onto the tip of another in order to remove it from the middle of a train track while the train was moving with him on it. One can only imagine the countless ways this feat could have misfired. Keaton puts his life on the line when, as one example among many, he's being shot at by a cannon all in the name of entertaining his audience. Personally, I'm appreciative beyond belief.
Keaton never quite received the recognition he deserved during his lifetime. Only now really is he lauded as a great legend of cinema. The General is one of the purest and most awe inspiring bits of entertainment ever captured on celluloid. Appreciation for Buster Keaton's genius will continue for as long as at least one copy of The General exists. If Chaplin is the Beethoven of cinema, then Keaton is Bach.
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966) *****
Directed by Sergio Leone
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966)- Finally, a Sergio Leone western with a story as good as its style. Immensely satisfying. ***** of 5
I wouldn't have to try too hard to find enough flaws in the story within The Good, the Bad and the Ugly to lower my star rating. This isn't one of the great stories ever put to screen. In fact, the whole thing feels slightly familiar and, dare I say, gimmicky. There's treasure buried in a grave, and one man has the name of the graveyard while the other knows which grave to dig. These two both leave the other for dead at different points, so presumably, once they encounter the money, they each plan to kill the other. Meanwhile, a third man hears about the money and also learns the name of the graveyard. He tries to get one of the men on his side, but after the two team up together again, the third man decides to use a different method to acquire his wealth, and clearly, he's planning on killing anyone who stands in his way.
The forward momentum of Leone's spaghetti western becomes the game that the three men play to stay alive and become rich. This requires a level of trust in the fact that none of the three are either totally insane or willing to kill the other to live instead of getting rich. Those real possibilities are never explored for the sole reason that they don't lead to a gratuitously overlong standoff in the aforementioned graveyard.
Yes, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly manipulates its viewers, and because of this, it better be a pretty damn satisfying slice of entertainment. It's an understatement to say that Leone, Clint Eastwood, Eli Wallach, Lee Van Cleef and everyone involved absolutely deliver. Even better, though not without its problems, the story I just described has a dynamism and a focus that is lacking in Once Upon a Time in the West. This movie, despite its truly awful dubbing which sort of adds an irresistible charm, takes itself seriously enough to illicit a sense of awe and admiration once the scope of the film ultimately sinks in.
The performances of the three leads do not contain the same level of twitchy camp and scenery chewing histrionics that are employed in both Dollars films, which unfortunately reappears again in Once Upon a Time in the West. I'm all for a film aspiring to be energetic, but The Good, the Bad and the Ugly proves that Leone's operatic style can successfully be married with performances that play for genuine emotion and tension. Eastwood is as assured as ever as the no-named Good, and Lee Van Cleef as the Bad wisely underplays, allowing for his character to adopt an heir of mystery and menace. However, Eli Wallach as the Ugly renegade outlaw steals the entire movie in a performance for the ages. On the page, I imagine his character comes off quite ridiculous, but Wallach plays him as if his character is in complete control of himself. Sure, the outlaw cackles and sputters, but he does so only when it's in his best scheming interest. What might appear to be a silly character on the surface turns out to be a lonely, brilliant, fundamentally decent semi-protagonist. Nowadays, Wallach is stuck playing the crazy old guy in films like The Ghost Writer, and every time he does, he comes off like the Ugly at his most strung out. Next time I see him up to his old shtick, I'll have to knowingly smile at his homage.
The style of the final graveyard shootout admittedly draws attention to itself. Otherwise, for the first time that I've seen in a Leone directed film, the style ultimately serves the story and not the other way around. The characters are written at just the right heightened level so that their depth matches the ambition of the cinematography and score.
There's a sequence that shows the goodness of the Man with no Name which has him mourning the death of a young soldier. There's a lot of suffering shown resulting from war which makes me think that Leone wanted to make a statement about the war in Vietnam. At one point, Eastwood states that he's witnessing the most sweeping and pointless loss of human life imaginable as the soldiers run head first towards their ultimate demise with almost nothing to show for it. This whole subplot serves Eastwood's character's development, but it also makes a profoundly sad statement about the atrocities of war.
With the first three Sergio Leone directed films I saw, I had a bit of trouble articulating my opinion of the films beyond the fact that they're stylish and fun. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is a film that I could talk about for a long time. After the humble ambitions of the Fistful films, Leone constructed a true masterpiece of cinema that seems to come out of nowhere when viewed next to its predecessors. It deserves its status as one of the most beloved films ever made.