Blargh! There are too many movies to review, so I’m going to just toss out a few quick thoughts on a few of these films that don’t need full reviews because they’re not too recent, they weren’t specially requested, and I don’t have anything particularly ground-breaking to say about any of them.
Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire (2009) - On a lot of levels, this film works. The writing does a fine job dealing with very sensitive issues and characters that could easily have crossed over into broad and potentially racist caricature, but Precious avoids doing so, featuring real, fully developed characters living in a believable inner-city setting. Even Mary, the mother played by Mo’Nique, manages to be more than just an evil mother, as the script eventually reveals the motivations and insecurities that fuel her anger and reveal another layer of tragedy to the story. The story even plays to both conservatives (Precious’ mother makes no effort to work precisely because she’d rather receive welfare) and liberals (Welfare and a special school, likely government-funded, are instrumental in Precious getting out of her oppressive home life). The acting is wonderful too. Mo’Nique’s Oscar was well-deserved; she makes Mary truly intimidating and vicious through most of the scene, and yet makes her final scene of confession entirely plausible while remaining true to the character she created throughout the film. Gabourey Sidibe meanwhile carries the film without wavering, entirely confident in a debut performance that offers a wealth of unique challenges that would stymie many experienced actors. My roommates, who watched the film with me, greatly disliked the ending, which didn’t bother me as much other than that it ignores the still-present problem of Precious’ AIDS diagnosis and the likelihood that her children have it too. My main issues with the film are technical. Basically, I hated the look of much of the film. The shots were often ugly and poorly chosen, the fantasy sequences were cheap-looking and frankly atrocious, and the editing transitions were too obvious and poorly timed. These problems permeate the entire film, and distracted from the quality of the script and performances. Precious was still good, but getting a director with a true visual sense could have made it way better.
Black Orpheus (1959) - Black Orpheus is a stunningly colorful, resplendent musical that shows off the beautiful sights and sounds of Brazil, although in truth it’s a French film made by French director Marcel Camus. The film retells the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, making the two lovers young Brazilians living in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, highlighted by the thrilling chaos of the yearly Carnaval celebration. The film had its share of detractors upon its release who claimed the film was absolutely false in its depiction of the impoverished class of Brazil, ignoring the hardships and painful realities of favela life. These criticisms are fair and undeniably true, but they also fail to recognize that Black Orpheus is not a conventional drama or a piece of social realism, but a musical, somewhat different in construction but no different in intent than any Hollywood musical, a form of escapism meant to capture the beauty of life, even while it depicted the anguish of lost love and death. Modern audiences might struggle with the admittedly stiff acting style, but again, that style works perfectly in the musical setting as well as the mythological source, wherein the characters are as much symbols as they are people. As for myself, I was absolutely charmed by Breno Mello as Orfeu and Marpessa Dawn as Eurydice, just as I was their lively supporting cast of characters. The myth translates well to the Brazilian setting. I’ve always thought of the presence of “don’t look back or be punished” stories in various cultural mythologies as a bit odd (they mean to encourage unquestioning faith, but is blind faith really such a great idea?), but the constant presence and unavoidable nature of death is a universal human theme as is the power of love to inspire, empower, and destroy, and the film also emphasizes Orpheus’ role as a musician and the metaphysical power of music, here literally raising the sun every morning, and ties everything into the power of humanity to carry on. Even if our beloved Orpheus dies, a new Orpheus will take his place and the sun will keep rising. A beautiful film, made even more hypnotic by the nearly-constant presence of music, samba sounds going on seemingly without end, day and night, even playing in the distance as characters talk or play their own songs, giving the impression that life in Rio never stops. This, in addition to the gorgeous bossa nova soundtrack, the sumptuous photography, the bigger-than-life costumes and floats, and the beauty of the Brazilian landscape itself, makes Black Orpheus a truly marvelous visual and aural cinema experience.
Waking Sleeping Beauty (2009) - This documentary gives an insider’s look into Disney animation as it moved from its low point in the late ’70s/early ’80s to its high point in the late ’80s/early ’90s, regaining its former glory with a string of major box-office hits - The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and The Lion King. The film looks at all the contributing aspects: the aging of the old guard replaced by new young talent, the arrival of new executives Michael Eisner, Frank Wells, and Jeffrey Katzenberg, the success of Disney’s live action films and particularly the success of Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, the influence of gifted songwriters Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, the advent of home video, and more. Director/narrator Don Hahn and producer Peter Schneider both worked in Disney Animation during this period (as a producer and president of the Animation Studios, respectively), giving them extra insight into the period as well as access to all the main figures involved and excellent archival footage to tell the story. Interestingly, the film avoids using any on-air interviews other than those that are archival, simply playing the audio from new interviews behind the images, which was certainly the best choice for a film with so much archival footage to choose from. While there are no scandalous revelations, there is frank discussion from the figures involved into a period that had its fair share of egos and arguments, and it’s somewhat surprising for Disney to allow even this amount of dirty laundry to be aired, so kudos to them for doing so. The film might not be of great interest to the average filmgoer, but for anyone with a special interest in the history of Disney or of animation, Waking Sleeping Beauty is both enlightening and entertaining.
North by Northwest (1959) - It’s interesting that North by Northwest is among Hitchcock’s most well-known and respected films when it is in fact somewhat atypical of his work. That’s not to say it isn’t recognizably a Hitchcock film, because it certainly is. His eye for detail and his mastery of the art of storytelling with camera as much as script are as apparent here as in any of his films. His unmatched skill with suspense is in full display too, as evidenced by the brilliant and justly famous crop duster scene. The concept itself isn’t unusual for Hitchcock either; the story of advertising exec Roger Thornhill being mistaken for a man named George Kaplan by a shady organization of foreign criminals and thusly finding himself on the run from both the criminals and the police fits tidily into the “wrong man” subcategory of Hitchcock films. Even its star Cary Grant is a Hitchcock regular, appearing in three of his other films, and his romantic counterpart Eva Marie Saint definitely fits into the “Hitchcock blonde” tradition. So what makes North by Northwest atypical for Hitchcock? That would be the film’s tone which is, by design of Hitchcock and writer Ernest Lehman, more light-hearted than the majority of Hitchcock’s other films, and the writing itself is less symbolic too, particularly compared to its predecessor Vertigo. Indeed, other than a very obvious piece of Freudian imagery in the film’s final shot, the film avoids symbolic ideas, instead focusing on the more obvious themes of a “wrong man” espionage story, particularly the fluidity of identity and issues of trust, in addition to a criticism of Cold War foolishness and the absurdity of serving up the innocent to procure the guilty. Cary Grant is in top form here, able to deliver with his proven comedic chops, adding levity to what would otherwise be very distressing events without ever sacrificing his character’s class or charm. Eva Marie Saint does a fine job opposite him playing the romantic aggressor in a means that appears implausible at first, but soon explains itself. James Mason is memorable as the film’s villain, equal in charm to Grant’s Thornhill, and also memorable is Martin Landau as Mason’s second-in-command, the intimidator to Mason’s charmer. Some critics have noted that North by Northwest seems almost a precursor to the James Bond films, and the connections are uncanny - international espionage; a square-jawed, well-dressed protagonist with an unending supply of wit and charm; a beautiful blonde love interest; plenty of sex and double-crosses; a charming villain with a crew of dastardly henchman; a variety of exciting locales; and a colorful, beautifully designed look to show it all off. One wonders what Hitchcock would have done had he actually directed a Bond film himself (a real possibility - Hitchcock showed interest in making Thunderball in the years before Albert Brocolli and Harry Saltzman gained rights to the Bond property). I found myself less enamored with North by Northwest than most of the Hitchcock films I’ve already seen, largely because I tend to prefer his work to be darker, but that’s only personal preference. Otherwise, there’s not a bad word to speak against the film. It’s truly deserving of its classic status.