Tuesday, March 01, 2016

Movie Journal: February

Paul Robeson: Tribute to an Artist
After a January in which I took advantage of the holidays to watch as many films as I could, February proved to be a pretty sharp retraction as I only managed to watch 17 films which were new to me. Unlike the last few months, there was a bit more variety as I got out of 2015 catchup mode and felt like I could watch films that weren't being considered for awards or end of year lists. I'm very much looking forward to doing more of that now that Awards Season is in the rear-view mirror.

The worst film I watched last month was Marion Jones: Press Pause. I've been watching a lot of installments of ESPN's 30 for 30 series recently, and this John Singleton-directed entry is easily the weakest I've seen. It's a scattershot retelling of the story of Marion Jones, the track and field athlete who won Gold at the Sydney Olympics, then had them stripped from her after it was revealed that she had used performance enhancing steroids, and ultimately spent time in jail for perjuring herself during the investigation. It's a great story, particularly when it touches on the racial aspects of how Jones was treated by the sporting establishment and the media, but the uneven mix of archive footage, post-prison interviews, and fly-on-the-wall segments about Jones' family life suggests that Singleton hadn't figured out how to tell it. He tries everything and none of it works.

Now that's over and done with, let's look at the best films I watched for the first time in February, 2016.

1. Room (dir. Lenny Abrahamson, 2015)

Mad Max: Fury Road was my favourite of the Best Picture nominees up until two weeks before the ceremony, at which point I saw Room and it finally had some serious competition. A relentlessly tough take on difficult material that could all too easily have veered into exploitation or soapy melodrama, Abrahamson keeps things from going too far in either direction through his spare direction and restrained tone. Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay, meanwhile, are both utterly incredible as the young woman and her son, respectively, who escape from years of confinement, only to discover how difficult it is to adjust to a new world.

2. Seconds (dir. John Frankenheimer, 1966)

The third part of Frankenheimer's trilogy of paranoid genre pictures (coming after The Manchurian Candidate and Seven Days in May) is the bleakest, strangest and, probably, best of the bunch. It's a thorny science fiction tale of a man who joins a mysterious organisation who, once he has literally signed his life away, fake his death, give him reconstructive surgery and a brand new life in a new, Rock Hudson-shaped body. Using that premise, Frankenheimer is able to tell a story that works as genuinely unnerving science fiction, rich in atmosphere and eerie imagery, but which also serves as a pointed critique of consumerism and the American Dream.

3. Paul Robeson: Tribute to an Artist (dir. Saul J. Turell, 1979)

It's a testament to how effective Tribute to an Artist is that, even though it runs for less than half an hour, it manages to offer real, significant insight into the life, career and beliefs of Paul Robeson, the legendary singer, actor, and political activist. The key to its success lies in its focus on Robeson's signature song, "Ol' Man River", and the ways in which he altered the lyrics over the course of his career, and what those changes suggested about his personal beliefs, and the struggles he faced in his own life as his Left-leaning politics left him increasingly isolated and estranged from his own country. Given the short runtime, the film can't claim to be definitive, but genuine illumination is a much more precious commodity than exhaustive detail.

4. 3 Idiots (dir. Rajkumar Hirani, 2009)

I'd been meaning to watch this Bollywood film ever since it crashed into the IMDb 250 shortly after its initial release. Considering the extent to which that list is made up of fanboy-driven recent releases and unsurprising works from the established canon of "worthy" cinema, I was naturally pretty curious to see any film that managed to make it on to the list without falling into either of those categories. Not only did it sate my intellectual curiosity, but it also captivated and delighted me for pretty much its entire near-three hour running time. The mix of broad comedy, exuberant musical numbers and social commentary don't always mesh together smoothly, but for the most part it's an exhilarating, funny, genuinely moving film about friendship, following your dreams, and the dangers of pissing onto an exposed wire.

5. Song of the Thin Man (dir. Edward Buzzell, 1947)

The sixth and final entry in the Thin Man series is much like the previous five: Nick and Nora Charles stumbled into a murder, they spar and snipe at each other and everyone in the vicinity, then they wrap everything up through sheer wit and verve. There aren't many surprises, but William Powell and Myrna Loy's chemistry is undeniable, and watching them go through the motions is a pleasure to behold.

6. Of Miracles and Men (dir. Jonathan Hock, 2015)

In stark contrast to Marion Jones: Press Pause, this 30 for 30 film about the Soviet team who dominated the international ice hockey world for much of the '70s and '80s is a exceptional piece of work. A thrilling tale of men finding an escape from the typical restraints of Soviet life through their sporting endeavours, only to bump up against a slew of other political problems, it manages to blend the personal and socio-political wonderfully. It offers a unique insight into the ways in which the Cold War played out through the proxy war of sport, and the tremendous pressure placed on the men who had to fight those battles.

7. My Country, My Country (dir. Laura Poitras, 2006)

The first part of Poitras' trilogy about American foreign policy in the 21st century - which continued with 2010's The Oath and concluded with last year's Oscar-winning Citizenfour - doesn't quite hit as hard as those films do, but that is less to do with the film itself than it is to do with how the world has changed for the worst since it was made. Poitras chronicles the efforts of Iraqi civilians, government officials, and members of the American military to carry out and partake in the first democratic elections held after the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime. The whole film is suffused with a sense of fear and hope as different forces within Iraq fight - both literally and metaphorically - over the direction that the country will take, and whether or not democracy will be able to take root in a country that has no true history of it, and which was already beginning to be riven by sectarian violence.

In light of the subsequent decade of death and chaos in Iraq, the film becomes both more melancholy and more removed; it's hard to get emotionally involved in the stories of the participants because we already know how things will turn out, and that they are going to end messily and horribly. It inadvertently stands as a poignant historical account of the last months before Iraq went from being a land of fragile potential to a land of disastrous reality.

8. Hail, Caesar! (dirs. Joel and Ethan Coen, 2016)

If I had assembled this list immediately after watching the Coens' latest, it probably wouldn't have cracked my top ten. It wasn't that I hated it or anything; I enjoyed it a lot. But it all seemed so superficial and frothy compared to other stuff that I watched both before and after seeing it. Yet if I waited another week to put this all together, I think it would probably move up into the top three. Like many of their films, it's a movie that has grown in my estimation as I've had time to mull it over, and while I wouldn't put it alongside their best work, there's something about the way it blends a pure, unadulterated love of moviemaking and craft with a more ruminative, philosophical consideration of what it means to create art that I find increasingly beguiling. Most importantly, the scene in which Ralph Fiennes tries to coach Alden Ehrenreich through a single line of dialogue may be the funniest thing I've seen in a film in years, and that has to count for something.

9. The Sweatbox (dirs. Trudie Styler and John-Paul Davidson, 2002)

Someone alerted me to the existence of a website which was streaming this often suppressed documentary about the making of Disney's The Emperor's New Groove, and as someone who is simultaneously repulsed and fascinated by the ways in which movies are assembled by committee, I felt like I had to seek it out. It's rough and incomplete, which is hardly surprising given that it was never truly finished, and it is fatally heavy on input from Sting, but it's also a surprisingly frank and unvarnished look at how a project can get into trouble through creative differences, how well-meaning executives can exacerbate things through their input, and how even a difficult and fractious production can still produce a really good film, even if it seems like the people involved look like they want to murder each other.

10. Le coup du berger  (dir. Jacques Rivette, 1956)

The death of Jacques Rivette on January 29th made me determined to seek out more of his work, having only previously watched his final film, Around a Small Mountain. I decided to start things off slowly with this early short, in which a woman receives a new fur coat from her lover. In order to explain how she got a new coat without making her husband suspicious, the two concoct a circuitous plan designed to hide their tracks, all of which plays out with a giddy sense of fun and exploration. It's a slight yet hugely enjoyable farce that builds to a great punchline, one which also happens to take place at a party attended by many of the key members of the nouvelle vague. It's always invigorating to be reminded that from tiny sparks, entire revolutions can burst forth.