Saturday, July 31, 2010

Lolita (1962)

Directed by Stanley Kubrick.
Starring James Mason and Shelley Winters.
In a Nutshell: A professor becomes infatuated with his teenaged stepdaughter.

Anyone familiar with the salacious and sardonic novel by Vladimir Nabokov knows the risks Stanley Kubrick faced in bowdlerizing to appease early 60’s sensibilities. Kubrick’s movie descends into sexual desire, infused with a tone both sly and dispiriting (but never at the same time). The movie begins with the book’s tragic ending. An air of pathos hangs over the movie, allowing us to observe literature professor Humbert Humbert’s (James Mason) pursuit of Lolita (Sue Lyon) with greater distance. Call it the Kubrick touch. Mason is perfectly cast as a man who regards his own perversion with bemusement, then ignores the warning signs anyway. The history of Humbert’s nymphet infatuation is now ordinary lust, inspiring pity and a knowing grin rather than disgust.

The emotional swings of Humbert’s tryst with Lolita more than account for the sharp tonal contrasts. Unfortunately, the censors may have had their way in muting any eroticism; all that is left are dark humor and middle-aged angst to grip the viewer. Tighter editing could have eliminated superfluous, if funny, scenes that cost the movie an appropriate curtness (too many involve Peter Sellers’ as a slippery playwright; a funny performance, but deserving of a different showcase). Rare for a Kubrick film to feature such extroverted acting; Mason’s flawless portrayal is given plenty of strong support. Newcomer Lyon balances petulance and callousness with ease while Shelley Winters fills her punchline role of Lolita’s needy, psuedo-cultured mother with an earthly charm.

A true adaptation may have been out of Kubrick’s grasp during past censorship, but finds the film’s own footing in obsession. A few slapsticky and superfluous scenes are championed by more meaningful moments; the emotional beats between Mason and his co-stars are wonderfully realized. Nabokov’s probing narration loses its voice, keeping perversion at bay. By the end, Humbert’s downfall has become more uncomfortable than his obsessions. We mourn his loss even if we cannot truly enter Humbert’s amoral psyche. One wonders if a censor-free Kubrick could have given a greater (if uncomfortable) depth to Humbert and Lolita’s relationship, but the film remains a stimulating treat.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Punch Drunk Love (2002)

Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson.
Starring Adam Sandler and Emily Watson.
In a Nutshell: A mentally unstable man falls in love while deflecting an extortion scheme.

The comedy of Adam Sandler, built on humiliation and unforeseen bursts of hostility, has never been universally loved. Critics have dismissed for cajoling its viewers into laughing at Sandler for those qualities, including his outward attacks on the film’s proposed villian. Such forms the basis for Paul Thomas Anderson’s delightfully off-kilter romance, Punch Drunk Love. Sandler plays his usual persona, with Anderson exploiting those unsettling undertones. Barry Egan, a salesman of novelty items, is the product of years of repression and sibling bulling. He is lonely, prone to odd obsessions, and incapable of expressing himself outside of uncontrolled sobbing and violent outbursts. An ill-conceived phone sex call threatens Barry with extortion, goading Barry’s unpredictable nature. But Barry’s life begins anew once he meets the shy and mysterious Lena (Emily Watson).

Previous Anderson films have coyly aped past directorial trademarks. Now the homage is genre-specific; Hollywood (pre-irony) romance with a shot of psychological darkness. It is an erratic pairing, which Anderson illustrates with a Technicolor palette, jittery cuts and soundtrack cues, and the swooning glide of each tracking shot. Such are the details that enliven a script that feels intentionally underwritten. Particularly Lena; is she too timid to offer anything but unconditional support or is the on-screen Lena just Barry’s interpretation? Theirs is a love that takes an open-minded audience to fill in the blanks.

A brisker affair than the typical Anderson picture, Punch Drunk Love is still a genre experiment (film romance and the undercurrents of uncomfortable comedy) rather than conceived as a character study. Sandler and Anderson give an unrelenting portrayal of the anger and fear of one bordering on illness, without becoming cinematic psychiatrists. As a romance, it lets Barry’s hopefulness and ecstasy run equally amok, and the film becomes as joyful as a MGM musical. Anderson has crafted one 90-minute emotional high, sold with panache and more visual creativity than the most accomplished of romance films. Like the harmonium that appears before Barry in the opening minutes, it is puzzling and delicate, while yielding something as pure as those first plunked notes.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Brazil (1985)

Directed by Terry Gilliam.
Starring Jonathan Pryce and Kim Greist.
In a Nutshell: An office drone unravels a terrorist plot while perusing his dream woman.

Our filmmaking industry needs more Terry Gilliams, and perhaps Gilliam needs more of the industry. As a filmmaker, Gilliam is dependably imaginative and commendable in his pictures’ scope but can trip on visual and thematic overload. Perhaps that criticism is unnecessary; this sort of unchecked invention is precisely what films should be for, even the worst ones. Brazil is at once his most extravagant and most focused, a comic distortion of dystopia. At its heart, it is the story of a dreamer in a world of steel and paranoia. Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce) toils at a low-level government job while fantasizing of flight, monsters and a beautiful woman (Kim Griest). Sam finds his muse to be Jill, the neighbor of a suspected terrorist. Jill becomes the government’s target when she correctly accuses the bureaucrats of apprehending the wrong man.

Nary does a futuristic touchstone go untouched by Gilliam’s lens. Terrorism, consumerism, the monotony of office work and the needless intricacy of household appliances are scorn to Gilliam’s deadpan wit. Its darkest themes of government propaganda do not disappear so much as they become shrouded in absurdity. Brazil’s aesthetic is born of 40’s era optimism. Every backdrop flaunts its steam-powered artifice to excessiveness for further comic effect.

This muddle is weighed by the wistful dreams of Lowry, a venue for more Gilliam-esque visuals while gracing the delicate hopes to escape it all. It is a sad note that follows the film to the very last frame. Of Gilliam’s Imagination Trilogy, Lowry’s plight cuts deepest, if only by having the most horrid world to escape from. Much can still be lauded over in Brazil; Michael Palin deserves accolades for his work as a nice guy who just happens to be a torturer. Its overstuffed script and mise-en-scène can sacrifice coherency for creativity, redeemed by Gilliam’s eagerness and the humanism of Lowry. A studio head or some outside collaborator could have reigned in Brazil’s excess. But it wouldn’t be this movie.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Faust (1994)

Directed by Jan Švankmajer.
Starring Petr Čepek and Jan Kraus.
In a Nutshell: A man becomes trapped in a stage production of Faust.

The story of Faust has been retold countless times, inviting any fresh perspectives. Surrealist animator Jan Švankmajer’s version may not delve into the psychology of Faust but is unique in its own charms. His adaptation is not a straight retelling; rather an Everyman (amusingly deadpan Petr Čepek) traps himself in a curiously sinister stage production of the tale. The man assumes the role of Faust, becoming a life-size marionette for the play’s unseen, God-like director. As the man scoffs at his predicament, gladly sealing his own fate, the play starts blurring the lines of reality. The puppet co-stars continue the show off-stage, from the streets to a sunny Eden-esque meadow. While Faust is tortured, Švankmajer amuses us with cutaways to Faust’s audience, even during intermission.

Švankmajer’s offbeat sensibilities are the film’s strongest point; the puppet and stop motion oddities play like Pee Wee’s Playhouse written by Franz Kafka. But Švankmajer seems all too happy to fill the screen with his oddities and little more. Faust is too lengthy and too surface-weird to stick in the mind. Švankmajer has stated that his Faust’s manipulation is a commentary on the spread of capitalism. Čepek’s induction into the stage production (with accompanying audience) may speak of the parts we unwittingly play before the passive masses. But the film only grazes these themes, content with stretching its visuals over a too-long 90 minutes. Too obscure for some, but fans of the surreal will need little persuasion to check out Švankmajer’s Faust.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

The Night of the Hunter (1955)

Directed by Charles Laughton.
Starring Robert Mitchum and Shelley Winters.
In a Nutshell: Two children guard their father’s fortune from a serial killer.

The Night of the Hunter is a film unique in its isolation, being the debut and swan song of Charles Laughton’s directorial career. It is a shining example of unpolished experimentation, and its flaws are easily trumped by Laughton’s creativity and vigor. A hybrid of Gothic folk tale and children’s horror, the film follows frighteningly eloquent murderer and faux-preacher Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) out to claim a fortune hidden by his former cellmate. He preys on the man’s widow (Shelley Winters), but only the children (Billy Chapin and Sally Jane Bruce) know where the money is stashed. Powell stalks the children through a rural America, shot by Stanley Cortez into nightmarish abstraction. In this world, adults are weak, petty or cruel (save Lillian Gish’s hardened evangelist) with only childhood innocence as a means to survive.

As a remnant of Hollywood’s Golden age, the tone and scenery are impressively exaggerated, either as a child’s eye view or classic cinematic distortion. Unfortunately the third act, that rescues the children from Powell’s treachery, shifts into Sunday school treacle about Good versus Evil. The final scene belongs in a starkly different movie, though perhaps Laughton was providing relief to his honorable characters. Though it leaves little beyond unequivocal pretense, the innovation to the imagery and performances creates its own nuances. Mitchum brings a fascinating understanding to the character of Powell, a man who finds his cleverness as an absolution to his depravity. Chapin and Bruce have fine naturalistic instincts, but a few stagy moments betray Laughton’s confidence.

Covering so many film styles (German expressionism, fantasy, documentary, etc) can make it easy to regard the film as artless or self-conscious. With themes of little texture, it is that willingness to push the movie into unique territories that remain its most enduring aspect. At its core, the movie is a world through the virtue of children; any social critiques of small-town values and the Christian faith barely leave the film’s edges. Haunting at best, artificial at worst, The Night of the Hunter is a production unafraid to veer into unexpected directions to culminate into the perfect child’s nightmare. It pulsates with enough unbridled artistry to wonder the sort of auteur Laughton could have become.