January is a notorious dumping month for new cinema in theaters, so I spend most of my Januarys catching up with Oscar-nominated films and films from the previous year in attempt to have my best-of list completed by March (if possible) and be able to cast an “ideal” ballot for the Academy Awards. This January has been no different, and I’ll hold off on assessing 2010 films until I’m ready to disclose my list and my ballot. What has been different this January is balancing film-viewing activities with relocating to a new college for an English faculty position, raising a two-month-old son, and acclimating myself to a new community. What follows seems like a small amount of films, but with all the 2010 releases I’m leaving out of discussion, I feel like I’ve been submerged in cinema.
There isn’t much of a rhyme and reason to the films I chose to watch this past month, except for a few primary factors. I tended to favor films I could watch with my wife (our two-month-old son is keeping us from going out on dates, so we’re watching more movies together at home), and I tried to catch certain selections that were slated to leave the Netflix streaming service. Unexpectedly, most of the films I watch were from the 1990s, a rather curious decade whose popular offerings seem to be aging in discordant ways.
Take, for example, Boogie Nights (1997). Paul Thomas Anderson’s examination of the soaring highs and nightmarish lows of the porn industry echoes with the influences of panoramic and pop directors like Altman, Scorsese, and Tarantino without managing to come within striking distance of any of them. Beautifully shot by cinematographer Robert Elswit and impressively acted by a large ensemble including a startlingly good Burt Reynolds, the weak thread in the fabric of Anderson’s quilt is his own screenplay that spreads the wealth too thin. Although numerous characters possess interesting qualities, few reach the level of development that would allow for complete audience identification, so the film relies on the essence of the performances (always a good thing) and pre-existing generalities (always a bad thing) to carry through many of the story arcs. Couple this with the fact that Anderson — pining to reach the level of visceral cinematic violence proffered by Scorsese and Tarantino — regularly resorts to tactics that feel cartoonish in comparison and Boogie Nights turns from full of potential into potential unfulfilled.
Or consider Shekhar Kapur’s Elizabeth (1998), another wonderfully acted film with notable production values that falls just short of surpassing the trappings of typical historical melodrama. Were it not for the sometimes patchy editing, Elizabeth would ring as a success driven by Cate Blanchett’s magnetic, shrewd performance as the monarch in the early days of her reign, when neighboring royalty wanted either her hand or her head and the Catholic Church rallied its bishops in ardent opposition to her policies. Whereas the film stutters on some technical issues, it absolutely needs Blanchett to be at her best in order to be even watchable — and on that count, it succeeds. The supporting cast varies in terms of quality, from a weak Joseph Fiennes to a loopy Vincent Cassell, from an over-utilized Richard Attenborough to an under-utilized and perfectly cunning Geoffrey Rush.
Queen Elizabeth’s life seems suited to dissection through a sliced, reworked biographical depiction of her. On the other end of the spectrum is Charles Chaplin. “If you want to understand me, watch my movies,” he opines in the unrelentingly frustrating biopic Chaplin (1992). It’s impeccable advice to be sure — even Chaplin’s weakest films provide more sparks of life than Richard Attenborough’s film, gnarled through clunky direction that attempts to capture as much of the icon as possible, misses numerous opportunities to explore the emotional complexities of what it meant to be arguably one of the most famous men on the entire planet. A scene at a bar where Chaplin is harassed by a World War I veteran for making films instead of fighting loses its power when stacked against droll love conflicts and Chaplin’s tawdry love life. Each of Chaplin’s major films are relegated to mere minutes inside this film, which again misses an opportunity to dig deep and explore the psyche and passion of the comedian who produced politically aware films such as Modern Times and The Great Dictator. Robert Downey Jr. earned an Oscar nomination for his portrayal, which includes both stupendous miming and not-so-stupdenous work as off-stage Chaplin. The recently late John Barry’s lovely score, mixing melodrama with an evocation of silent comedy, was also nominated, and arguably should have won.
Revisiting a pair of Michael Mann films from the 1990s — Heat (1995) and The Insider (1999) — revealed films that were less rich than I had previously considered. The primary selling point of Heat continues to be the famed pairing of Al Pacino and Robert De Niro, a cop and a criminal respectively. There is some admirable work done within the film, including some nicely choreographed and pulse-raising action sequences balanced with steely and spare moments that would qualify for Raising Tension 101. There’s an admirable stab at illustrating the conflict of profession versus domesticity as well, as the film’s men stand in contrast to the film’s women. But if Mann is able to masterfully control the moment, he’s less able to control the mammoth quality of the film in totem. This ebb and flow doesn’t quite (pardon the egregious pun) generate the heat that is necessary for complete success. The Insider, however, has better rhythm but inferior structure. In that film, there are actually two insiders: Jeffrey Wigand (Russell Crowe), a dismissed tobacco company executive, and Lowell Bergman (Pacino), a CBS News producer. Wigand blows the whistle that Big Tobacco was well aware of the addictive power and danger of cigarettes while Bergman finesses Wigand into a story for 60 Minutes. The resulting fallout tears apart Wigand’s personal life, which is the emotional heart of the film, and sends Bergman into a rage against the system after the corporate chiefs nix Wigand’s story. The performances remain strong, but the central flaw arrives through narrative unevenness and the resulting emotional disconnect. Mann and his co-writer, Eric Roth, tell the story chronologically and swing too far from Wigand toward Bergman in the second half. While the behind-the-scenes look at CBS News makes for some thrills under Mann’s steady direction, Bergman’s story doesn’t carry the heft of Wigand’s.
Lighter fare from the decade, like My Blue Heaven (Herbert Ross, 1990), provides entertainment but nothing much else. A riff on the story of Henry Hill — he of Goodfellas fame — starring Steve Martin as a mobster gone into Witness Protection and the FBI agent (Rick Moranis) charged to protect him, My Blue Heaven scores some easy laughs without breaking new ground. Within days its comic elements fade from memory. Worse for the wear is Oliver Stone’s Wall Street (1987), which today seems more like an impeccably assembled time capsule of late ’80s excess than a gripping drama about power, greed, and the cutthroat atmosphere of lower Manhattan’s business sector. But as a time capsule candidate reflecting the antic, brutal, out-of-the-chaos-comes-cohesion filmmaking abilities of Stone, Wall Street doesn’t pass any test. Michael Douglas, an Academy Award-winner for best actor in a weak year, chews the scenery but not much else. The film is as stiff as over-gelled hair or a starched collar. For a better look at the naked elements of human nature, turn to Tamara Jenkins’ The Savages (2007), in which Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney portray siblings caught in the inadequacies of life as they put their ailing father into a nursing home.
What should come as no surprise to the regular readers of this blog is that my heart lies with older offerings, and I was pleased to be able to see Leo McCarey’s great Make Way for Tomorrow (1937) for the first time. The film has earned a reputation for having one of the most hard-nosed endings in the history of Hollywood, a moment so achingly beautiful and sad that one would never expect a major studio offering today to end in such a way. (“It would make a stone cry,” Orson Welles reportedly said.) And it is true that McCarey doesn’t turn away from the hard reality that elderly parents are often ignored or pushed aside by their children, no matter how well-intentioned those children can be. The film has magnificent pacing and a screenplay steeped in universal emotion, and it remains as relevant and powerful today in a beautiful restoration by the Criterion Collection. Rome Open City (1944), the first of Roberto Rossellini’s neorealist war trilogy, is also available on Criterion and worth the time. Famously shot on the tightest of budgets and with whatever film stock Rossellini could find mere months after the Allies liberated Rome from its Nazi-occupation, the film is a strong profile of ordinary Italians who are struggling externally and internally when caught between their occupiers and the Resistance. Rome Open City encapsulates a similar, yet different, feeling of emotion exhaustion, although most of its unflinching characteristics are borne out expressively, on screen. It is a fine, early example of its neorealist genre and of its country’s cinema during the 1940s.
McCarey and Rossellini aside (and one other film, which will appear with its own review soon), the foray into film this last month was not as completely satisfying as a foray into episodic television. I watch the first few seasons of Parks & Recreation (NBC) and Modern Family (ABC), which are available through Netflix and the premium subscription to Hulu. Both shows follow the single-camera, laugh-track-free, documentary-esque format made popular by a spate of recent network television successes like Arrested Development and The Office. (30 Rock, while eschewing documentary format, nevertheless embraces the single-camera format.) In fact, those shows are particularly helpful guides, as Modern Family bears resemblance to Arrested Development and Parks & Recreation bears resemblance to The Office. Each takes its predecessor a step further — Modern Family weaves three core nuclear units into a larger tapestry, creating a larger ensemble than Development; Parks & Recreation, once it settled into a groove and found its voice in the full-run second season, took the often surreal and highly comic office environment and spliced in governmental satire and created characters that seem more robust and complete than the Americanized version of The Office, which lost steam after its third season. For someone who usually doesn’t watch much television except in DVD and instant-streaming formats, these two shows proved to be exceptionally bright spots to counteract winter doldrums.
I don’t quite have the time to explore the literary offerings I consumed during January, but let me give some recommendations of books I read that I enjoyed: The Art of Losing: Poems of Grief and Healing (edited by Kevin Young, an eclectic mix classic and contemporary verse exploring the innumerable facets of grief); Beowulf (the Old English epic translated by the Irish poet Seamus Heaney); Gideon’s Trumpet (a chronicle of the landmark Supreme Court case Gideon v. Wainwright with in-depth at how the court functions, written in superbly clear prose by Anthony Lewis); and 1 Henry VI (Shakespeare’s classic examination of power-hungry factions that cause the state more harm than good, largely considered to be literature’s first “pre-quel”).
Coming up: an ideal 2011 Oscar ballot, the best films of 2009 (only a year late!), and a standalone review of Apocalypse Now because I have too many thoughts on it to be constrained to the Media Month feature. Until then: what was the best film, new or otherwise, you saw during January?
Make Way for Tomorrow (Leo McCarey, 1937): ★★★★½
Open City (Roberto Rossellini, 1945): ★★★★
The Insider (Michael Mann, 1999): ★★★★
My Blue Heaven (Herbert Ross, 1990): ★★★½
Heat (Michael Mann, 1995): ★★★½
Boogie Nights (Paul Thomas Anderson, 1997): ★★★½
Elizabeth (Shekhar Kapur, 1998): ★★★½
The Savages (Tamara Jenkins, 2007): ★★★½
Wall Street (Oliver Stone, 1987): ★★★
Chaplin (Richard Attenborough, 1992): ★★
Parks & Recreation (NBC, Seasons 1 & 2): ★★★★½
Parks & Recreation (NBC, Seasons 1 & 2): ★★★★½
Modern Family (ABC, Season 1): ★★★★½