The Theory of Chaos

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Lifelong Addiction Update

One of my favorite aspects of Oscar Season is Turner Classic Movies’ 31 Days of Oscar festival, when they showcase award winners and nominees from all the way back to the very first Oscar movies of the late 20’s. It’s a good time of year to have a DVR, let me tell you. But that sword’s got a second edge, because the more I record, the more I have to watch to keep recording space free for whatever’s coming up. When you consider that my DVR is almost always near capacity because of my movie addiction anyway, I find myself in the position of scheming free blocks of time during the day to watch. Which won’t be a bad thing until it starts cutting into work.

Here’s a sample of what I’ve watched recently:

: This is considered one of the least-known Woody Allen films, and is not much regarded because of it. Its story – about a devastating weekend of secrets revealed and hearts broken in the lives of some romantically self-deluding middle-aged New Englanders – unfurls more like stage than cinema, but there aren’t a lot of dramatists out there who would even consider sustaining a feature just on peoples’ yearnings, much less pull it off. In the absence of jokes and slapstick, it’s his precision of language and ability to create six fully-formed characters out of a little dialogue and the way they behave at polite get-togethers that knocks me out here.

: Oh, God, what beautiful, miserable people these are. Another Woody Allen film, this was his first after winning an armful of Oscars for Annie Hall. If that movie was his perspective-stretching neurotic humor cut with just the right mixture of introspection and heartbreak, this movie is his attempt to flush “Woody” out of his system completely. A bleak portrait of a self-destructing family and the mother at the center of it, it’s about the final thread of their ability to live together yanked out by a patriarch who thinks everyone will be alright with him walking out to be with another woman, provided he simply explains how fair it is earnestly enough. The whole look of the movie is superb – all those tasteful domestic spaces with the oxygen sucked right out of them. And I’m hard-pressed to think of another screen character that so perfectly represents the cycle of self-loathing rage than Richard Jordan as the alcoholic writer who knows he’s less talented than his wife, but wants her to lie about it once in awhile so he can contradict her.

Dead Calm
: Nicole Kidman was a damn sight more beautiful before she had half her face sucked out and the rest replaced by ceramic. This is a tight-as-hell three-person thriller about a husband and wife who bring a shipwrecked drifter aboard their yacht, only to discover his story about the death of his shipmates is omitting a few important bloody details. The husband goes to investigate and ends up trapped on the sinking cruiser, while the wife is trying to outwit the psycho she’s trapped with. I wouldn’t hesitate to show it to my screenwriting class, because it sets out the basic elements of cinematic storytelling so clearly and capably. That is, right up until that ridiculous final moment that reeks of studio test-screening interference.

Journey Into Fear
: An invigorating, if slightly slapdash, wartime B-thriller about an American armaments executive pursued by a Nazi assassin, it stands as a sort of community effort from Orson Welles’ Mercury Theatre players. Joseph Cotton stars and is credited with the screenplay, although Welles and Ben Hecht are rumored to have lent a hand. Welles also may have leant a hand to studio system director Norman Foster, whose work has a few, let’s call them, uncharacteristic flourishes this time out. Welles didn’t likely have time to assert too much control, he was rushing to finish his scenery-chewing role as super-macho Turkish spymaster Colonel Haki so he could go down to Brazil, get drunk, whore around, and fail to complete a documentary.

Out of the Past
: One of the greatest film noirs of all time, it’s also been called the greatest smoking movie of all time. Robert Mitchum, who looks like he was born with cig dangling from his lips, is lighting up in every scene, sometimes two or three times. He’s never been cooler, never better at striking that balance of craftiness, wounded romance and casual sadism that typified the noir man. Even Bogart would have had a hard time doing better. And as a former private investigator trying to leave a dirty case behind and start a new life, he uses those white clouds of smoke to tell you how he really feels whenever he has to be polite to the ruthless mobster (Kirk Douglas) that won’t leave him alone. I get an extra thrill from this movie because several scenes are shot in Bridgeport off the 395, which I’ve passed through a couple of times on road trips – the movie’s 60 years old now but many of the buildings are still there.

I also saw two more episodes of Showtime’s
Masters of Horror series, which isn’t turning out nearly as well as I want it to. I’ve seen eight of them so far, and I really liked two, kind of liked a third, and thought the rest were varyingly levels of bleh.


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