Monday, November 26, 2007

The Old and the New

Some notes of moving pictures seen in the dark or by lamplight, ordered from dearly beloved to manageably tolerable:

Decision At Sundown (1957), directed by Budd Boetticher. The third entry in the "Ranown" cycle of Westerns that Boetticher filmed with star Randolph Scott, it's a tight-fisted 77 min. of moral wrangling and lean storytelling. Scott's Bart Allison is a rude, stubborn sonofabitch hell-bent on offing the dandified Tate Kimbrough, a charsimatic rake who rules the town of Sundown with an oily iron fist. Motive: Kimbrough adulterated with Allison's wife, who then strung herself up. The question is constantly raised whether this is a sufficient reason to kill a man - and Allison's quest eventually reveals how his own lust for violence has overwhelmed any sense of justice. The rest of the town receives their own moral enema.

Southland Tales (2006), directed by Richard Kelly. A convoluted bit of dystopic comedy that hits way more than it misses - especially with Dwayne Johnson's superb performance, a self-conscious bit of action-hero parody that attains an unexpected kick of pathos. It simmers with ambivalent rage about the Iraq War and the state of American politics and culture - put across with mordant wit and all manner of pop culture paraphenalia.

No Country For Old Men (2007), directed by Joel and Ethan Coen. A precisely calibrated, technically accomplished thriller - the Coens hold their smirky tendencies in check, and produce a tense chase film. It falls flat in reaching for higher themes than the will to survival (something about the world as an endless cycle of violence, Tommy Lee Jones and Bardem as ghoslty pawns in this fated game). These ideas are murky and marked with self-importance (partly the fault of the source material - it's one of Cormac McCarthy's weakest). Good movie, but overrated.

Michael Clayton (2007), directed by Tony Gilroy. Another well-crafted, relatively empty-headed thriller, anchored by another fine George Clooney performance. With the evidence of Eyes Wide Shut and Clayton, Sydney Pollack should quit directing and play creepy authority figures full time. Tom Wilkinson acts crazy (but is he?), and Tilda Swinton acts sweaty (she is). Corporations are bad, and Clooney looks good with tie slightly loosened. I like where Gilroy is headed though. With his Bourne scripts and this - his penchant for morally ambiguous heroes who reveal their character through action rather than talk (despite all the chatter in Clayton), he might make a film as powerful as Decision at Sundown someday.

Monika (1953), directed by Ingmar Bergman. I usually agree with Godard when he writes a hysterical ode to a film - but not this time. Perhaps I was too tired at the screening - but the tale was predictable, the stagings staid, the performances rote (except for Harriet Andersson, of course, who beamed and burned convincingly throughout). Lovers escape the strictures of society, try to forge their own Eden, and fail. I yawned, and wondered what the hatchet job performed by its U.S. distributor looked like when it was retitled Monika, the Story of a Bad Girl.


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