PETER WIX: I have, by some fat chance, been sat upon my posterior in front of a batch of American movies. A little pain, but much joy too. Read on...
A Serious Man - Ethan and Joel Cohen 2009
And a serious film. As with many Cohen bros flicks, this is one you will need to see again to be able to fully enjoy the exquisite situation humour. Dark and deceptive - the brothers are supreme in this territory. The story comes, I have read, from the biblical book of Job. Unless they make any deeper forrays into the Hebrew world, this is going to be the brothers' 'Jewish movie'. Indeed, the concepts and terminology of Jewish ritual needed to follow the religious dynamic of the central character's life as it falls apart are beyond the knowledge of most gentiles so, for most of us, following the plot involves a little bit of faith that the Cohens have some more universal message to explore. And this is a theory bolstered by the fairly heavy concepts of physics and maths that the film also throws at us. The thing about these difficult paradoxes and equations is that one of them is nothing less than an 'Uncertainty Principle', a useful clause in our intellectual contract with existence that allows us to quickly dismiss both religious and scientific schemes as unbinding, just stories, like this one, which is very good and very well told.The question that I can't answer after just one viewing is whether the Cohen brothers themselves are appealing to the Uncertainty Principle so they can remain where they usually like to be - sitting on a beautifully painted fence - or if they are truly exposing the Jewish religion and its absurd gestures and prescriptions to ridicule (and, by extension, all religion). The key may be the sequence presented by way of a foreword in which actions, rather than ruminations, are clearly what is needed when catastrophy knocks, and that renders our reflections useless, whether they be religious nonsense or attractive but inapplicable science. Watch carefully. Be in the right mood with your head clear. This is delicious.
The Road - John Hillcoat 2009
More than a 'road movie', this is a trail of American debris, the obsessions of a people and culture whose behaviour will be the most likely cause in our lifetimes of the kind of nuclear or climate debacle which forms the landscape for this tale and its metaphors; the movie version of Cormac McCarthy's book focuses with arguable effectiveness on the parenting analogy: A father and son struggle on the road to nowhere, surviving some kind of disaster that has desolated the earth. American obsessions? Well, the gun is ever present, as is the debate about when to use it and how it serves for suicide. Sentimentality is a substitute for philosopy, and God continues to exist on a would he?/wouldn't he? anthropomorphic basis. Distrust of one's neighbour in the nuclear holocaust situation is a fair presumption, but then what movie portrayal of American society is not about distrusting one's neighbour? Distrust seems to be the nature of all those who call themselves American (though they may call it pragmatism). In this sense, although on the surface it is a film from a novel about survival in a post-cataclysmic situation, The Road carries an undercurrent of wagon trail Westerns with all the neuroses of the early US settlers, complete with persecution complex. If we extend the father-to-son metaphor to an analogy of government, then what we have is the hard but caring American Western hero doing his best to care for a generation that is precariously generous, human-spirited, more European, perhaps, and built of the stuff we all really need in order avoid the cataclysm: a bit of decency and friendliness? Whether this is the intentional package of The Road as a film is up for grabs, however, since it relies entirely on orthodox US moviemaking grammar, glib music, the rather dim-witted resorts to the warmth of family, the power of the tear, bla-bla sentimentalism, excessive time spent on the female lead (Charlize, it must be contractual) without exploring the psychology and, inevitably, the comforting fizz of Coca-Cola.
6/10 (for some beautifully decadent panoramas).
Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry - John Hough 1974
Though a little clumsy in exposition and corny in dialogue, you can settle and enjoy a few moments of this very 1970s movie if you remember what it is to go all Dukes of Hazard and Starsky Hutchy. There was a need in those days (and presumably financing too) to show car culture off in movies (though cars were certainly more about external glamour then than internal gadgets). This is pure cops and robbers car chase genre, Bonnie and Clyde style. The colour of the Dodge Charger (Tor-Lime it is known as, though it's more of a lurid avocado) is worth the wait. Susan George always had fine gestures for the heat of the moment, as she so sexually demonstrated in Straw Dogs. Peter Fonda is the boy racer. A series of tremendously violent images but without any deaths until...
Carnal Knowledge - Mike Nichols 1971
I still cannot watch this film without chuckling at the recollection of a very funny spoof that ran in MAD magazine, my favourite reading as a kid. Try to find a copy of that mag if you see this film. Nichols is an under-feted director whose first films included the definitive 60s movie, The Graduate, and one of the bravest film-of-book adaptations ever, Catch 22. This one labours a bit - Jack Nicholson, 33 when it was made, looked far too old to play an under-graduate. Art Garfunkel, fascinating as an actor (subime in Nic Roeg's Bad Timing) carried it off, and Candice Bergen was at her loveliest. The film has its moments, and Ann-Margret has yet another of hers. Nicholson, as ever, seduces.
The Truman Show - Peter Weir 1998
I had never seen this. If you know the weight this has amongst American films of recent decades, you can imagine how pleasant the surprise was. Director, Peter Weir, has always been concerned with our uncertainty of our own realities, and the doubts we have about how they are made up (in the case of the unwitting Truman, a life made up by a TV serial writer played most interestingly as a kind of God-figure by the mighty Ed Harris). How difficult it is to accept the reality of what you see. This is a formula for happiness just so long as you don't get a glimpse of the evil geniuses who shift the scenery and manipulate those guileless enough to accept the formula, i.e. most of us at some time in our lives. Doubt creeps in, however, and thankfully so. This movie quite wonderfully paints an amusing and intriguing canvas that brings the basics of Cartesian doubt up to a sociological context we can relate to in our times of mass media manipulation. A must for fans of Guy Debord's Society of the Spectacle, it offers as much to admirers of cinematic style as it does to armchair philosophers. Jim Carrey is a major talent, an actor with the silent-movie touch and a greater interpreter of the complexity of human beings than the likes of Harold Lloyd, for example. We should praise him more. The work on the sets, the lighting, the editing, the timing of the final sequences, all contribute to what is a fine example to hold up of how good American cinema can be.
The Lovely Bones - Peter Jackson 2009
A curse upon my diligence. It makes me sit films out to the end even if I've seen enough in the first five minutes to reach a judgement I know will stand unshaken for the next 90 minutes or so. Is it just an Occidental habit to trivialise serious matters like child murdering or does this happen everywhere where money can be made from selling fantasies? Besides the trite script, apalling acting (Mark Whalberg, Rachel Weisz), and tedious, sentimental notions (Heaven, for chrissakes!), I want to highlight one awful aspect of this and so many other Hollywood attempts to stir up the emotions of audiences fresh into cinemas from the adjacent shopping malls: the dire, de rigueur, musical scores they use, in particular the corny, wet piano notes that accompany every representation of filial or romantic love, and the drippy epic pop songs chosen for denouments, in this case the dream pop cliche, Song of the Siren.You'd think they were just looking for people who can trot out the typical sonic Hollywood film muzak, no? And, naturally, that's what they did by giving the job to Brian Eno. Appropriate enough for a film about dead youth trying to come to terms with the impossibility of taking an active part in things anymore.
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