Virginia-Woolf-005

Scorecard: March 2012

[At the end of every month I post a rundown of the movies I saw that month, tallying them according to how much I did or didn't like them. You can always see my recent watches here and my ongoing list of bests for the whole year here.]

Yes, I realize this is now exactly one month late. I blame two things – the TCM Film Fest and how gorram difficult it was to pound out that Blind Spot review of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, which I wanted to finish before posting this recap which includes it. But now it’s done and I’m already working on April’s, so hopefully I should have that ready soon. Though it is extremely large, given the aforementioned TCM Film Fest. By the way, I haven’t posted anything on that here outside of the initial preview – I meant to, but time has been short – but there are a few reviews and more on the way over on Row Three.

What I Really Liked

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

So after I struggled quite a lot figuring out how I wanted to rate and review this film (see my Blind Spot entry for it), it ended up coming in the respectable high 600s on my Flickchart, which is basically square in my “really liked it” section. I’m not sure I actually “really liked” it, but it’s probably a fairly good spot for it, considering how many sides of me were warring over the film. For the record, when I FIRST ranked it immediately after watching it, it was in the 1100s somewhere. So it has definitely gone up in my estimation with a few weeks to mull it over. Anyway. I wrote a lot about it in the other post, so I won’t bother writing more here.

1966 USA. Director: Mike Nichols. Starring: Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Sandy Dennis, George Segal.
Seen March 21 on DVD.
Flickchart ranking: 621 out of 2901

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

This was one that was on Jonathan’s list for me to see, and I pretty much went into it knowing nothing about it. Even though I had no expectations, it was not what I expected. :) Mostly because I always forget it’s directed by Terry Gilliam – whenever I remembered that, the batshit insane things going on onscreen made sense. Er, “made sense” is a poor choice of expression. Nothing in this movie (purportedly about a journalist heading to Las Vegas to cover a race) makes sense, but that’s what you expect from Gilliam – and apparently Hunter S. Thompson, though I have no familiarity with his work beyond this. Basically this movie is a very long, very whacked out drug trip, and while that description doesn’t usually appeal to me, this movie is almost non-stop WTF fun. And it’s definitely the best thing I’ve seen Johnny Depp do for a while (“this here’s bat country”). Like most Gilliam movies, it goes off the rails at the end (how could it not, in this case?), and I had some issues following the chronology that made some of the later parts a little less enjoyable, but I really had fun with it overall, even if I spent three quarters of the movie with my jaw dropped going “I can’t believe that just happened.”

1998 USA. Director: Terry Gilliam. Starring: Johnny Depp, Benicio Del Toro, Tobey Maguire, Ellen Barkin, Gary Busey, Christina Ricci.
Seen March 30 on Criterion Blu-ray.
Flickchart ranking: 622 out of 2901

The Raid: Redemption

I first heard of this film after a few glowing reviews from friends who saw it at TIFF, who praised it for its non-stop, well-choreographed, high-octane fighting, even though the story of a SWAT team invading a drug lord’s apartment building is a little sparse. For a little while I was afraid I’d misheard and it was gonna be all guns, which would’ve been boring and just needlessly violent (in a boring way). But then the hand-to-hand stuff started, and all of that was awesome. So yeah. Just enough story to string a nearly 100-minute long fight scene on, and that was enough. Also, it was surprisingly well-paced for basically being a long fight scene, with some breather sections in there at just the right times. Definitely had fun with this.

2010 Indonesia. Director: Gareth Evans. Starring: Iko Uwais, Ananda George, Ray Sahetapy, Yayan Ruhian.
Seen March 24 at Arclight Hollywood.
Flickchart ranking: 991 out of 2901

The Hunger Games

The immense amount of hype and some decently cut trailers got me into the theatre for this even though I haven’t read the book, and I wasn’t disappointed in the least. Not that the film is a perfect one – the direction is lackluster and the camerawork and editing falls into all the traps of chaos cinema, using closeup shakicam and frenetic editing for no purpose whatsoever. That did kind of settle down a bit as the film went on, though most fight scenes were still indecipherable. And yet, I truly enjoyed the film anyway, because Katniss Everdeen is simply a great character, and Jennifer Lawrence does a great job of portraying her. She’s everything a hero should be – brave but not arrogant, intelligent but not infallible, trying to do the right thing, but often conflicted. I’m definitely looking forward to seeing more of her onscreen, so I’m hoping that Gary Ross’s replacement will not have quite as much affection for annoying camera and editing techniques.

2012 USA. Director: Gary Ross. Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Wes Bentley, Stanley Tucci, Elizabeth Banks.
Seen March 31 at AMC Burbank.
Flickchart ranking: 964 out of 2901

Possessed

This film has a pretty killer opening, with a sans-make-up Joan Crawford stumbling down a Los Angeles street in a daze, calling out the name “David” over and over again. She soon collapses and is taken to a hospital, where she eventually becomes well enough to tell what happened to her. The film settles into a more conventional noir melodrama, but as with any of these films, the interesting bits are in the details. The David she was searching for is Van Heflin, a man who she’d been obsessed with earlier, but who hadn’t returned her love. He’s basically an homme fatale, taking the place of the femme fatale so much more common in noir – he pops in every once in a while to turn the emotional knife in Crawford’s gut, with never a care in the world beyond himself. Eventually she snaps, falling into a schizophrenia that has her believing all sorts of things happened that didn’t, and the film is told closely enough from her point of view that it’s often hard for us to tell what’s real and what isn’t. The film may try to do too much, between the unrequited love, eventual loveless marriage, love triangle, stepmother-stepdaughter conflict, nurse-patient trauma, schizophrenia, murder/suicide/accident plot, and whatever else. But Crawford holds it together, and the noirish cinematography makes it often very interesting to look at. There’s a tracking shot near the beginning as she’s being wheeled into the hospital – her POV, so all ceilings going by until the exam room and two doctors pop their heads into the frame to exam her/the camera. Very nice, and alerts us immediately we’re in her shoes for the duration. That’s not an isolated good shot, either – the film is full of them. Not necessarily flashy or attention-grabbing, but effective and effortless.

1947 USA. Director: Curtis Bernhardt. Starring: Joan Crawford, Van Heflin, Raymond Massey, Geraldine Brooks.
Seen March 22 on DVD.
Flickchart ranking: 1224 out of 2901

What I Liked

Lilac Time

Capitalizing on his memorable single scene in 1927′s Wings, Gary Cooper played a WWI pilot again in this film, which is not nearly as great a film, but still quite watchable and with some very endearing parts. Colleen Moore is cute as a button as the French girl who tends to a contingent of British pilots stationed in France. They’re “her boys” as she feeds them, entertains them, carefully counts their returning planes and mourns for any losses, but when Cooper joins them, her affections run a little deeper for him. The film is really solid until the melodrama of their probably doomed romance takes over everything else, kind of ruining the great group dynamic the film had worked so carefully to balance for the first three quarters. Even so, it was an enjoyable watch, Moore was enchanting (especially in the lighter earlier sections), and it’s fun to see Cooper so young.

1928 USA. Director: George Fitzmaurice. Starring: Colleen Moore, Gary Cooper, Burr McIntosh, George Cooper, Cleve Moore.
Seen March 7 at Cinefamily.
Flickchart ranking: 1499 out of 2901

Rewatches – Loved

Modern Times

I ended up writing a whole long post about this film after seeing it at Cinefamily a few weeks ago, so I won’t belabor the point here. It’s in my all-time Top Twenty on Flickchart, so it’s pretty clear how much I adore this film. Even though I would probably now tend to favor Keaton et al over Chaplin et al, there’s not much that can come close to my love for Modern Times.

1936 USA. Director: Charles Chaplin. Starring: Charles Chaplin, Paulette Goddard.
Seen March 14 at Cinefamily.
Flickchart ranking: 19 out of 2901

Rewatches – Liked

The Circus

It had been quite a while since I last saw The Circus, which is sandwiched up between The Gold Rush and City Lights in Chaplin’s filmography and rarely gets as much attention as either of those films. And granted, it may not be quite as amazing as they are, but it is still a pretty freaking awesome movie. Chaplin’s Tramp runs into a circus as he’s being chased by the police (this is after a tremendously funny and exciting chase through an amusement part, with way more sight gags and baits-and-switches than I remembered) and ends up inadvertently becoming the hit of the show. But not all goes as well for him on the personal front, as he falls in love with the ringmaster’s daughter, who only has eyes for the tightrope walker. The story invokes all of Chaplin’s trademark pathos, and has a lot of magnificent set-pieces as well – the most well-known are when Chaplin tries the tightrope walking himself, and when he accidentally locks himself into a cage with a lion. This film is definitely a worthy entry in Chaplin’s filmography, and gag for gag, probably as funny as any of them.

1928 USA. Director: Charles Chaplin. Starring: Charles Chaplin, Merna Kennedy, Allan Garcia, Harry Crocker, Henry Bergman, George Davis.
Seen March 28 at Cinefamily.
Flickchart ranking: 728 out of 2901

Sunshine

I still think the third act falls apart, though I will say I didn’t mind it as much on a second viewing, when I knew what to expect and wasn’t totally thrown off-guard by the tonal shift. I still much prefer the more meditative part before they find the Icarus I, but I can understand better now where that last bit was trying to go. I just don’t think it totally worked. That said, I did have a fun time this go-around finding comparisons to Apocalypse Now (I hadn’t seen it yet last time I watched Sunshine). Even with the third act let-down, it’s still a pretty top-notch sci-fi movie, and I like the film overall enough to still rank it pretty highly.

2007 UK. Director: Danny Boyle. Starring: Cillian Murphy, Rose Byrne, Chris Evans, Michelle Yeoh, Hiroyuki Sanada, Troy Garity, Cliff Curtis, Mark Strong.
Seen March 24 on DVD.
Flickchart ranking: 854 out of 2901

A Shot in the Dark

When this popped up on Instant, I was seized with a sudden desire to rewatch it, since I hadn’t in a very very long time, so I made Jon watch it, too (he hadn’t seen it before at all). It’s easily the best of the Pink Panther films, with Clouseau taking center stage and getting himself into some pretty ridiculous situations. I will say, though, that the comedy was a lot slower and less hysterical than I’d remembered – it really takes its time setting up gags and letting them play out perhaps a bit longer than necessary. I won’t say I was disappointed – I still think it works quite well as both a comedy and a mystery, but memory had amped up the hilarity more than is actually the case.

1964 UK. Director: Blake Edwards. Starring: Peter Sellers, Elke Sommer, George Sanders, Herbert Lom, Tracy Reed.
Seen March 2 on Instant Watch
Flickchart ranking: 749 out of 2901

They-Live

Film on TV: April 30-May 6

Monday, April 30

8:00pm – IFC – Moulin Rouge!
Baz Lurhmann admittedly has a love-it-or-hate-it flamboyantly trippy aesthetic, especially in the informal Red Curtain trilogy which Moulin Rogue! closes. And sure, it’s over the top; sure, the story is fairly routine; sure, the acting is so-so. I love it to pieces anyway.
2001 USA. Director: Baz Lurhmann. Starring: Nicole Kidman, Ewan McGregor, Jim Broadbent, John Leguizamo.

10:45pm – IFC – Night of the Living Dead
Zombie movies can be conveniently subcategorized into pre-Romero and post-Romero, so influential has this film been. Eschewing voodoo and zombie masters, Romero posited a zombie created by our own nuclear follies and motivated by nothing more than insatiable hunger. More than that, the layer of social commentary makes Night of the Living Dead far more than the B-movie schlocker it seems like on the surface. It changed zombie films, and probably horror films in general to an extent, forever.
1968 USA. Director: George A. Romero. Starring: Duane Jones, Judith O’Dea, Karl Hardman, Marilyn Eastman.
(repeats at 2:30am on the 1st)

12:45am (1st) – IFC – Evil Dead 2
The sequel/remake to Sam Raimi’s wonderfully over-the-top demon book film, set in the same creepy wood-bound cabin, with even more copious amounts of blood and a lot more intentional humor. I’m still not sure which I like best, but either one will do when you need some good schlock. (I still haven’t seen Army of Darkness, I’m shamed to admit.)
1987 USA. Director: Sam Raimi. Starring: Bruce Campbell, Sarah Berry, Dan Hicks.

Tuesday, May 1

6:30am – IFC – Caché
Very deliberate but intensely thought-provoking film from director Michael Haneke, delving into issues from privacy and surveillance to war guilt and revenge. It’s a difficult film, and one that stretches the limits of the suspense thriller, but if you’re willing to go along with it, it’s well worthwhile.
2005 France. Director: Michael Haneke. Starring: Daniel Auteuil, Juliette Binoche, Maurice Bénichou.
(repeats at 12:30pm)

Wednesday, May 2

9:30am – Sundance – Encounters at the End of the World
Werner Herzog has made the savage beauty of nature one of his themes throughout most of his fiction films, so perhaps it’s only natural that he has moved onto explicitly non-fiction explorations of some of nature’s most remote locales, in this case, Antarctica.2007 USA. Director: Werner Herzog.
(repeats at 4:15pm)

5:00pm – TCM – My Fair Lady
George Cukor finally won an Oscar in 1964 for this film, a high-quality adaptation of Lerner and Loewe’s musical, itself an adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, itself based on the Greek story of Svengali and Trilby. Rex Harrison and Audrey Hepburn acquit themselves well as phonetics professor Henry Higgens and street urchin Eliza Doolittle. I guess I just find it a bit overlong and overproduced, as most 1960s musicals were, but I’m in the minority.
1964 USA. Director: George Cukor. Starring: Rex Harrison, Audrey Hepburn, Stanley Holloway, Wilfrid Hyde-White.

8:00pm – IFC – The Thin Red Line
Breaking Terrence Malick’s twenty-year filmmaking silence since 1978′s Days of Heaven, this film applies his contemplative and poetic view of the world to a WWII story. It remains a favorite among Malick fans, and an interesting counterpoint to Spielberg’s action-oriented Saving Private Ryan, released the same year.
1998 USA. Director: Terrence Malick. Starring: Sean Penn, Jim Caviezel, Nick Nolte, Elias Koteas, Ben Chaplin.
(repeats at 1:45am on the 3rd)

8:00pm – TCM – Sullivan’s Travels
Sullivan’s Travels is a slightly more serious turn for Preston Sturges, but ultimately upholds his comedic tendencies. Joel McCrea is a filmmaker known for his comedies who decides he wants to make a serious film about the depression; but as a successful Hollywood director, he doesn’t know anything about poverty and the working class, so he embarks on an odyssey to learn about them, picking up waifish Veronica Lake as a traveling companion.
1941 USA. Director: Preston Sturges. Starring: Joel McCrea, Veronica Lake.
Must See

9:45pm – TCM – The Palm Beach Story
Similar in tone but less consistent than The Lady Eve, this Preston Sturges film follows bickering couple Joel McCrea and Claudette Colbert as she leaves him to gold dig for a richer man. He follows her, pretending to be her brother, and they get all entangled with a wealthy brother and sister. The ending is a weak bit of trickery, but there are enough moments of hilarity to make it worth watching.
1942 USA. Director: Preston Sturges. Starring: Claudette Colbert, Joel McCrea, Rudy Vallee, Mary Astor.

11:30pm – TCM – The More the Merrier
A World War II housing shortage has Charles Coburn, Joel McCrea and Jean Arthur sharing an apartment; soon Coburn is matchmaking for McCrea and Arthur, and we get a wonderful, adorable romance out of it.
1943 USA. Director: George Stevens. Starring: Jane Arthur, Joel McCrea, Charles Coburn.

Thursday, May 3

9:45am – IFC – Away from Her
A very strong directing debut film from actress Sarah Polley, about an older woman (Julie Christie) suffering from Alzheimer’s and her husband’s difficulty in dealing with essentially the loss of his wife as she has more and more difficulty remembering their life together. It’s a lovely, heartbreaking film, bolstered by great understated performances.
2006 Canada. Director: Sarah Polley. Starring: Julie Christie, Gordon Pinsent, Olympia Dukakis, Stacey LaBerge.

8:00pm – TCM – In Cold Blood
The film version of Truman Capote’s chilling retelling of the murders committed by Dick Hickcock and Perry Smith, and their subsequent incarceration and trial.
1967 USA. Director: Richard Brooks. Starring: Robert Blake, Scott Wilson, John Forsythe, Paul Stewart.

Friday, May 4

7:45am – TCM – The Ladykillers
One of the most delightful of the Ealing comedies, with Alec Guinness leading a bunch of crooks (including a young Peter Sellers) whose bankrobbing plans get flustered by an unlikely old lady.
1955 UK. Director: Alexander Mackendrick. Starring: Alec Guinness, Cecil Parker, Herbert Lom, Peter Sellers.
Must See

9:30am – TCM – The Lavender Hill Mob
Alec Guinness leads the Ealing Studios regulars in this delightful heist comedy, one of the greats among a bunch of great late ’40s, early ’50s Ealing films. Also look for a really young Audrey Hepburn in a walk-on (this is her first film, I believe).
1951 UK. Director: Charles Crichton. Starring: Alec Guinness, Stanley Holloway, Sid James, Marjorie Fielding.

6:00pm – TCM – Wait Until Dark
Audrey Hepburn is a blind woman set upon by a trio of home invaders in search of some smuggled heroin they think ended up hidden at her house – an all-around good little thriller, with a fantastic climactic set-piece.
1967 USA. Director: Terence Young. Starring: Audrey Hepburn, Alan Arkin, Richard Crenna, Efrem Zimbalist Jr.

8:00pm – IFC – The Prestige
Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins follow-up, a wonderfully twisty and evocative period thriller about a pair of stage magicians and their potentially deadly rivalry. Some great ideas elevate this far above what you might expect, and solid performances all around carry it through nicely. Definitely deserves mention among the finest thinking-man’s films of the past decade.
2006 USA. Director: Christopher Nolan. Starring: Christian Bale, Hugh Jackman, Scarlett Johansson, Rebecca Hall.

8:00pm – TCM – The Three Faces of Eve
Joanne Woodward portrays a woman with multiple personalities in an Oscar-winning role; Lee J. Cobb is allowed an uncharacteristically sympathetic role as her doctor (usually he’s the villain, or at least antagonist).
1957 USA. Director: Nunnally Johnson. Starring: Joanne Woodward, Lee J. Cobb, David Wayne.

9:45pm – TCM – 12 Angry Men
A brilliant exercise in minimalist filmmaking; after a brief courtroom scene, twelve jurors discuss the fate of a young man accused of murder. What’s assumed to be a cut-and-dried conviction is contested by Henry Fonda, who isn’t convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt, and slowly works through the evidence to pull the other jurors one by one to his side. The stifling heat, claustrophobic room, prejudices and preconceptions of the jurors, logic and emotions, everything plays into this film, which is much more engaging than it has any right to be.
1957 USA. Director: Sidney Lumet. Starring: Henry Fonda, Lee J. Cobb, Jack Klugman, Jack Warden, Martin Balsam, Ed Begley.
Must See

2:00am (5th) – TCM – They Live
3:45am (5th) – TCM – Escape from New York
TCM’s hitting some newer classics, bringing out a pair of John Carpenter favorites. They Live is one I haven’t seen yet, though I really want to, about a man who finds a pair of sunglasses that when worn, reveal that aliens have taken over the world unbeknownst to anyone else. Sounds just crazy enough to be awesome. And of course, Kurt Russell is on hand to save the President when he crash lands in the high security prison of futuristic Manhattan.
1988 USA. Director: John Carpenter. Starring: Roddy Piper, Keith David, Meg Foster.
1981 USA. Director: John Carpenter. Starring: Kurt Russell, Lee Van Cleef, Ernest Borgnine.

Newly Featured!

Saturday, May 5

6:00am – TCM – The Thief of Bagdad
An early Michael Powell film (in collaboration with several others), before he teamed up with Emeric Pressburger, but no less an impressive display of stunning Technicolor cinematography on the fantastic Arabian Nights story.
1940 UK. Director: Michael Powell, Ludwig Berger. Starring: Sabu, Conrad Veidt, June Duprez.

6:00am – Sundance – Grizzly Man
Werner Herzog’s fascination with the duality of nature’s beauty and destructiveness continues into documentary, as he brings the story of grizzly researcher Timothy Treadwell to the screen.
2005 USA. Director: Werner Herzog.
(repeats at 2:30pm)

5:00pm – TCM – The Bridge on the River Kwai
British prisoners of war are commanded to build a bridge over the River Kwai for their Japanese captors – a task which becomes a source of pride for old-school British commander Alec Guinness. But American William Holden is having none of that and makes it his mission to blow the bridge up. One of the great war films.
1957 USA/UK. Director: David Lean. Starring: Alec Guinness, William Holden, Sessue Hayakawa.

8:00pm – IFC – Training Day
A rookie cop heads out with a seasoned detective to learn the ropes, but the experienced cop isn’t exactly on the straight and narrow. Denzel Washington won an Oscar for his portrayal of the volatile detective.
2001 USA. Director: Antoine Fuqua. Starring: Denzel Washington, Ethan Hawke, Scott Glenn.
Newly Featured!
(repeats at 10:30pm)

12:00M – TCM – Written on the Wind
Whenever I’m tempted to use the term “melodrama” in a derogatory sense, I stop and remind myself of Douglas Sirk, and especially of this film. Taking lush domestic struggles with soap opera potential and making them into stunning films was Sirk’s specialty, and this is one of his best, chock full of alcoholic husbands, love triangles, nymphomaniacs, and class prejudice, but with a heart and sense of tragedy that turns “melodrama” into a compliment. Add in Sirk’s exquisite eye for composition and a deservedly Oscar-winning supporting turn from Dorothy Malone, and this one isn’t to be missed.
1956 USA. Director: Douglas Sirk. Starring: Rock Hudson, Lauren Bacall, Robert Stack, Dorothy Malone, Robert Keith.
Must See

Sunday, May 6

2:00pm – TCM – Jane Eyre
The definitive classic-era version of Bronte’s gothic novel, with a touch of noirish style to add to the overall moodiness. Joan Fontaine isn’t quite plain enough or fiery enough to be believable as Jane, but Orson Welles (only acting here, not directing) is a fairly imposing Rochester. Also be on the lookout for a very young Elizabeth Taylor in one of her first roles as Jane’s childhood friend Helen Burns.
1944 USA. Director: Robert Stevenson. Starring: Joan Fontaine, Orson Welles, Margaret O’Brien, Peggy Ann Garner, John Sutton, Sara Allgood, Henry Daniell, Agnes Moorehead.

6:00pm – TCM – Marty
Ernest Borgnine won an Oscar for his role as the schlubby, lonely title character, resigned to being unloved, until he meets a plain schoolteacher whose similar resignedness might make her his perfect match. The idea of having unlovely people in lead roles was a new one in Hollywood in the 1950s, and Marty capitalized on Paddy Chayefsky’s story with great results.
1955 USA. Director: Delbert Mann. Starring: Ernest Borgnine, Betsy Blair, Esther Minciotti.

8:00pm – IFC – Fight Club
This film is so good on so many different levels, it’s difficult to even know where to start. Masculinity, consumerism, terrorism, black comedy, mindbending narrative…yeah, those are not all parallel, making it a poorly-structured list. I don’t really care, you’ve all probably seen this movie before, but here’s a chance to see it again.
1999 USA. Director: David Fincher. Starring: Edward Norton, Brad Pitt, Helena Bonham-Carter.
Must See
(repeats at 11pm)

8:00pm – Sundance – Thank You For Smoking
Jason Reitman’s breakout film was also one of my favorites of 2005 – sure, it’s a bit slight and isn’t perfect, but its story of a hotshot PR guy working for cigarette companies struck just the right note of cynical and absurd humor. The really high-quality cast doesn’t hurt either, with everybody, no matter how small their role, making a memorable impression.
2005 USA. Director: Jason Reitman. Starring: Aaron Eckhart, Katie Holmes, Rob Lowe, Maria Bello, David Koechner, J.K. Simmons, Adam Brody, Sam Elliott.
(repeats at 1:05am on the 7th)

dvd-triage

DVD Triage: April 24, 2012

New Release Pick of the Week

The Innkeepers
Easily one of my favorite films of last year (it even made my top ten list), Ti West’s take on the haunted house is equal parts well-played comedy and atmospheric horror, and both parts work perfectly. I loved every second of this film, and I’m looking forward to revisiting the Yankee Pedlar soon.
2011 USA. Director: Ti West. Starring: Sara Paxton, Pat Healy, Kelly McGillis.

Other New Releases

11-11-11 (2011 USA, dir Darren Lynn Bousman, stars Timothy Gibbs)
Albatross (2011 UK, dir Niall MacCormick, stars Felicity Jones)
Cinema Verite (2011 USA, dir Shari Springer Berman, stars Diane Lane)
Dark Tide (2012 USA, dir John Stockwell, stars Halle Berry)
The Fields (2011 USA, dir Tom Mattera/David Mazzoni, stars Tara Reid)
Let the Bullets Fly (2010 Hong Kong, dir Wen Jiang, stars Chow Yun-Fat)
Night Wolf (2012 USA, dir Jonathan Glendening, stars Gemma Atkinson)
Return (2011 USA, dir Liza Johnson, stars Linda Cardinelli)
Some Days are Better than Others (2010 USA, dir Matt McCormick, stars Carrie Brownstein)
The Theatre Bizarre (2011 USA, dir various, stars Udo Kier)
Titanic (2012 USA, stars Peter McDonald)
Young Goethe in Love (2010 Germany, dir Philipp Stölzl, stars Alexander Fehling)

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Blind Spots 2012: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

This has been an extremely difficult review to sit down and write, largely because this film elicited such strong and conflicting reactions from me both while viewing it, and thinking back on it afterwards. I have never felt so in turmoil about a film, even while in the midst of watching it, my thoughts and emotions swirling back and forth even within the same scene. Loving it, hating it, sympathizing, being repulsed, being moved, understanding, feeling detached, exasperated, annoyed, intrigued, heartbroken, unresolved. Of course, maybe that’s utterly appropriate, given that the film is about a couple constantly at each other’s throats, except when they’re in each other’s arms, who drag a younger couple along with them on a night of “fun and games.” But what is the game, and what are the rules, and who’s having fun? The answers to those questions shift as often as my emotions did, and with as little warning or explanation.

George and Martha are a middle-aged academic couple, respectively a professor in history and the daughter of the university’s long-time president. As the film opens, they’re wending their way home after a university party, chatting quietly while lovely and calm background music plays. But even at this most peaceful point in the movie, they quickly fall into a rhythm of argument, clearly their default mode of interacting with each other. As they return home, Martha quotes one of Bette Davis’s campiest characters, proclaiming “What a dump,” then hounding George to tell what movie it’s from. At this point, the movie was already grating on me pretty badly, and it’s only getting started!

Soon a young couple comes over to continue the party, but they don’t know what they’re getting into any more than I did. The night wears on, Martha goading George continuously and flirting with the young man, while his wife gets more and more inebriated. But George, though far wearier and less vulgar, can give as good as he gets from Martha, his barbs carrying an air of intellectualism that makes them cut even deeper. Meanwhile, the younger couple aren’t innocents, either, but have their own skeletons in the closet. The film is almost a one-room drama (as the original Edward Albee play was), focusing on the four characters’ ongoing conversation and interactions. Most of it is very antagonistic, quite mean-spirited, and rather stagey and histrionic.

And yet. And yet. I can’t simply write the film off, and not only because I know how highly regarded it is. Somewhere about halfway through it started getting under my skin, and I’ve found it often popping up in the back of my mind since I finished it. As more details start to come out about George and Martha’s past and the “games” they play with each other (as George says, “we’re not ‘at’ each other, we’re just exercising what little of our wits is left”), I found myself more and more intrigued both by these people and by the structure of the film itself. It lets us in only slowly, at first only showing us George and Martha as they are now, a bitter couple who have grown almost complacent in their antagonism. But there’s more to them than this, a depth that soon becomes apparent in Burton’s weary eyes, his sighs as he accepts or counters yet another of Martha’s hurls.

Really, if it hadn’t been for Burton, I doubt I would’ve made it through the entire film. Taylor’s performance is often praised (and she won an Oscar for it), but except for one or two times when she quieted down and revealed some of the pain behind her own animosity, her performance largely tends toward shrill and histrionic, and I rarely if ever believed her. Burton, though, I believed all the time. All his emotional beats worked completely for me, and I felt every catch in his voice, every callback to old pain revisited. I will say that Taylor came very close to redeeming herself for me in the final scene, by which time the film had put me through such a confusing emotional wringer that I was as drained as she and Burton (the kids are there mostly as audience surrogates and something for George and Martha to play off of; they have their own stuff going on, but it’s relatively insignificant in comparison).

So by the end, the film’s power had definitely gotten to me, but I still don’t know if I could rewatch it any time soon. And yet…I do want to rewatch it. I want to study why it had the effect on me that it did. Very rarely am I this confused about my reaction to a film, and on the one hand, I know the film is powerful for affecting me the way it did, and the last act is pretty devastating however you slice it. Meanwhile, the first act is viciously funny (it worked better for me after I opted to think of it as a comedy – until somewhere in the second act, that becomes impossible). Also, I credit Mike Nichols and cinematography Haskell Wexler for some greatly affecting lighting and camerawork, which did a whole lot to balance out the theatricality of the dialogue. Even when I was recoiling from the characters and the mean-spiritedness on screen, I was still usually fascinated by the way it was shot. Even so, I can’t in good conscience say I think everything in it worked. Sandy Dennis also won an Oscar for her role, which I don’t understand, because she’s largely just acting a silly drunk girl the whole time, and she’s almost more annoying (if more innocuous) than Martha. Taylor I can’t get behind totally, and the young man is pretty dull.

And one thing about the ending. Vague spoilers follow.

The ending depends on the revelation that something George and Martha have been talking about the entire night is actually an elaborate fantasy, the breaking of which fantasy because reduces Martha to nothing. Now, I have in my life indulged in an awful lot of elaborate fantasy, which has, at certain times in my life, been very real to me. But despite the undeniable sincerity with which Burton and Taylor treat this aspect of the film, it stretched my suspension of disbelief to the breaking point to believe that two well-educated adults had kept up a fantasy just between the two of them that has this kind of power over them. It’s one of those things that worked while I was watching the film because Burton and Taylor put it over, but five minutes after the film was over, I was going “wait, really?!”

The “who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf” is an academic variation on “who’s afraid of the big bad wolf,” and in this case, apparently, the big bad wolf is a life free from illusions, free from facades – a life that Martha in particular fears to face. But I got that from a Wikipedia article, not from the film, at least not on a first viewing. And even with that, I’m not sure WHY she fears it so much, and why George, who seems better adjusted, would help her keep up such a strange and elaborate fantasy for so long, and then finally break it that night. Those are questions that will have to wait until I get to another viewing. But returning to the world of George and Martha will be exhausting, and I’m not sure when I’ll be ready for it. At this point, I’m inclined to rate it highly simply because I think the extremely unsettled feeling I had both while watching it and thinking back over it is intentional. On the other hand, I’m still not sure I like that, and while certain scenes worked like gangbusters, as a whole I can’t say I enjoyed watching it. But not every film is made to be enjoyed. So I end up where I started – conflicted.

dvd-triage

DVD Triage: April 17

New Release Picks of the Week

Mission: Impossible Ghost Protocol
This film got much better reviews than I ever expected it to, and that’s after I was already interested due to Brad Bird and Jeremy Renner (sorry, Tom). Busy holidays kept me from it, though, so I’ll have to catch it on DVD…which is sadly not IMAX-sized.
2011 USA. Director: Brad Bird. Starring: Tom Cruise, Jeremy Renner.

Shame
A divisive film in many ways, with some praising Fassbender and the film’s style, while other were put off by its lack of depth. I didn’t manage to get out to see it in theatres, but I definitely want to catch up with it before too long.
2011 UK. Director: Steve McQueen. Starring: Michael Fassbender, Carey Mulligan.

Other New Releases

After the Banquet (2009 South Korea, dir Kim Yoon-cheol, stars Sin Seong-woo)
American Dad!: Volume 7 (2011 USA, creator Seth MacFarlane)
Bob’s Burgers: Season 1 (2011 USA, stars H. Jon Benjamin)
The Divide (2012 USA, dir Xavier Gens, stars Lauren German, Michael Biehn)
Garbo: The Spy (2009 UK, dir Edmon Roch, stars Nigel West)
Girlfight (2011 USA, dir Stephen Gyllenhaal, stars Anne Heche)
A Heavenly Vintage (2009 New Zealand, dir Niki Caro, stars Keisha Castle-Hughes)
Hell’s Labyrinth (2011 USA, dir Drew Maxwell, stars Leah Rose)
The Last Rites of Joe May (2010 USA, dir Joe Maggio, stars Dennis Farina)
Man on the Train (2011 USA, dir Mary McGuickian, stars Donald Sutherland)
7 Below (2012 USA, dir Kevin Carraway, stars Val Kilmer)
Up from Slavery (2011 USA, dir Kevin R. Hershberger)

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